Plastic Pollution is a worldwide problem. Eight million tonnes of plastic are released into the ocean every year. This causes havoc for the environment, the sea-life and humans. Last month was the first time that scientists had evaluated human blood levels for plastic particles. A study analysing blood samples from 22 individuals discovered 80% had plastic particles in their blood stream, including PET plastic used in drink bottles. Plastic serves a purpose. It keeps food fresh and safe in the food and drink industry. It is also easy to make, so large-scale disruptions with other plastic materials can be difficult.
Business-as-usual, however, is not an option. FoodNavigator questions the stakeholders, from governments to FMCGs, to NGOs, and other entrepreneurs, about who should be responsible for fixing the plastic pollution in the world.
Public and private sectors in the spotlight
When contemplating responsibilities in plastic pollution, three stakeholders come to mind: the private sector, governments, and the consumer.
If NGO A Plastic Planet was forced to choose which party had the greatest responsibility for plastic pollution, it would be governments.
“Working with industry on a daily basis, I am constantly reminded just how difficult it is for industry to wean their products and supply chains off this incredible but toxic and indestructible material,” A Plastic Planet’s Chief Changemaker, Sian Sutherland, explained.
Sutherland co-founded A Plastic Planet in 2016 with the goal of dramatically reducing the use of single-use plastic in packaging.
“Without stronger governance, making plastic reducing a ‘have to’ vs a ‘nice to’ for corporate stakeholders, taxing plastic to create a fairer market for other materials, banning what we all know is the wrong use of plastic, we will never see the scale or speed of action needed to combat the plastic crisis.”
A Plastic Planet is an advocate of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, whereby companies putting packaging on the market are required to pay for its collection, sorting, and recycling after use. If ‘true EPR’ was introduced and all companies would be responsible not only for the initial, but also the third, fourth, and ‘forever’ lives of plastics they place on the market, Sutherland thinks they’d ‘think twice about’ using the material.
For others, it is more challenging to separate the responsibility. Suvi Haimi (CEO and cofounder of Alt Plastic Start-up Sulapac) believes that if governments do not support new materials for replacing plastics, then it may be more difficult for businesses to provide ‘truly sustainable’ products.
The Finnish company uses a mix of wood and natural binding agents to create eco-friendly straws that don’t become soggy, like paper straws. It also makes industrially compostable cutlery, which it says can replace single-use plastic products.
Everyone is accountable for their own actions, stressed Haimi. “However, if there is no alternative to conventional plastic in the market, it’s hard to be a conscious consumer.”
Regulators in Europe have made an effort to cut the use of single-use plastics, via the EU Single-Use Plastic Directive (SUP), which came into force last year. Although the directive was created with great intentions, Haimi said it missed the mark.
“[The SUP] banned the use of chemically modified polymer in straws, even if they biodegrade without leaving permanent microplastics behind. Tragically, this directive has become an obstacle in our fight against the global plastic pollution.”
Ultimately, if forced to select one stakeholder responsible for turning the tide on plastic waste, Sulapac would say it falls on companies’ shoulders.
“I left academia to save the world from plastic waste. As an entrepreneur, I realized that I had the potential to make a significant impact. Now, as a company, Sulapac not only invests and provides sustainable material solutions, but we have become activists and ambassadors educating consumers, companies, and governments.”
For FMCG Coca-Cola, it is impossible to choose. Sam Jones, Head Climate and Sustainability, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB, stated that collaboration is crucial.
“Working collaboratively is key to tackling plastic pollution. Jones stated to FoodNavigator that only by working on a large scale can we get real results.
The UK’s plastic bag levy, for instance, was a good example of this. The levy requires retailers to collect a fee from consumers to use a single-use plastic bag. In England, the charge is a minimum of 10 pence per bag.
“The plastic carrier bag levy…was founded on business action alongside government intervention,” said Jones. “It’s this combined, cross-sector collaboration that’s needed to pioneer more sustainable packaging solutions and shift consumer behaviour.”
Corporate action on the rise
What other improvements have been observed in tackling the plastic pollution problem in recent times? Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB has seen an increase in corporate commitments to combat plastic pollution. These include initiatives to decrease the use of plastic in bottles and to replace plastic with lighter containers.
“Industry partnerships have played a big part in this and in helping to drive innovative sustainable packaging solutions. We’ve increased our industry partnerships in the past few years with companies like CuRe Technology, a start-up that recycles difficult-to-recycle plastic polyester waste.
Changes in consumer behavior often drive businesses to take action. Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB noted that shoppers are increasingly concerned about sustainability. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Shifting Sands report, 32% of people are highly engaged with adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. Jones stated that as we move towards a circular economy, this is an area in which governments and businesses must take leadership.
From A Plastic Planet’s perspective, corporate commitments are indeed on the rise. But, Chief Changemaker Sutherland said that ‘true actions are scarce’.
“Plastic is still on track to treble by 2040; recycling has stalled at 9%. We still offshore our guilt by exporting over 60% of our plastic waste from the UK. 70% of clothing we wear is made with fossil fuel plastic.
“Headlines, pacts and rhetoric do not equal action and we need to pick up the pace. Otherwise, the plan B for Big Oil will prove to be a plastic nightmare for future generations.”
A wareness building, recycling infrastructure not up to scratch
The biggest improvement observed by Sutherland in recent times is in awareness of the problem.
Sulapac’s Haimi similarly noted that awareness and demand are on the rise. The start-up offers both ‘indie and prestigious’ brands the option to make use of its alt plastic materials.
While the transition from traditional plastic to Sulapac’s sustainable option is easy, considering that Sulapac materials can be used in existing machinery, co-founder Lamenting that there is not enough recycling infrastructure or legislation, the sector is still struggling.
Both are subject to regional variations, she said. “For example, even though packaging is bio-based, it cannot be used in industrial composting systems.
“Also, as there are no mechanical recycling routes, like there is for PET bottles, to collect and reuse novel materials [are new processes] and it takes time to get enough volume to make the system efficient.”
Sulapac is not staying passive. According to us, the start-up has been actively developing its own “take back” system and researching new recycling routes.
Further, together with other sustainable material start-ups, Sulapac is lobbying to ensure decisionmakers ‘understand the plastic pollution problem’ and support solutions that tackle it.
“This is currently important in Europe as the collection processing, and regulatory framework for organic recycling infrastructure for various packaging products is in the development phase.”