Are we losing sight of the real sustainability goal in our quest to find convenient solutions?

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:

This year’s shelves have been stocked with bamboo straws, paper bags and compostable coffee cups.

The resource revolution has officially begun, with born-again environmentalists obsessing over the packaging their food comes in and where their waste ends up. Well, some of them at least. In a bid to keep their customers happy, retailers have made switches to what they believe to be more environmentally friendly materials, but could this good will be causing more harm?

Take McDonald’s, for example. Enthused by the anti-plastic rhetoric, customers were outraged that the fast-food chain had been offering an estimated 1.8 million plastic straws per day at its many stores up and down the country, and therefore decided to set up a petition arguing for change.

McDonald’s bosses listened and swapped out the straws for paper alternatives following a trial in some of its stores. This helped to boost the chain’s environmental reputation and even earned praise from the then environment secretary Michael Gove, who said the move was a “significant contribution to help our natural environment”.

Yet McDonalds was soon forced to admit it had not been sending the paper straws to be recycled, claiming they were too thick to be broken down and that the infrastructure to recycle the straws does not yet exist in the UK. The straws’ manufacturer Transend Packaging rejected the recyclability aspect of this claim but reinforced the need for more investment in the UK’s recycling infrastructure.

McDonald’s is just one example of many retail outlets that have potentially switched from one currently unrecyclable material to another, meanwhile claiming the environmental kudos. So is it time to tell the customer they may not always know what’s best?

“I think companies find it easier to listen and react to consumers rather than try and educate them. The science isn’t straightforward and the answers are not what they want to hear,” says Professor Margaret Bates, professor of sustainable waste management at the University of Northampton.

“We want a nice, easy solution that means we don’t need to feel guilty but we also don’t need to change our lifestyle. We need to work out what we need and then what is the best stuff for it to be made from.”

Bates warns against ‘bandwagon jumping’ and instead insists there needs to be a more thorough, well-thought-out response before products are changed. “We need joined-up thinking from government. For example, why take action on straws and not glitter and foil wrapping paper, for which there are no disability issues?”

One ‘eco-alternative’ which has seen a large boom over the past few years is Edinburgh-based Vegware, which produces foodservice packaging made from plants rather than plastics. Its range of more than 300 products can be composted in industrial composters, offering a resourceful alternative to on-the-go-packaging.

A brilliant innovation, but as regular RWW readers will know, this is not without its problems given the containers can only be composted in certain areas where there is the infrastructure to deal with them.

Annalise Matthews, recycling advisor at Vegware, says: “There is still some mixed messaging out there and some confusion around compostable vs biodegradable. We explain the difference, highlighting that it’s all about the timeframe. Compostable means it can break down in under 12 weeks, whereas biodegradable has no timeframes associated with it.”

This risks some retailers and their customers switching to plant-based materials thinking they will decompose naturally in the environment without realising the necessary process. If the containers are not composted, they risk being littered or ending up in landfill. Again, the issue comes back to education and there being no silver bullet when it comes to eco-friendly materials.

Waste collection firm Viridor has begun to see the knock-on effect of this confusion. Jez Blake, head of recycling (polymers), says: “We have found that some material, described as either compostable or biodegradable, does not degrade at the pace required for anaerobic digestion. This material is regarded as a contaminant in the plastic recycling process.”

Viridor is also concerned that some compostable or biodegradable material is not easily distinguished from polymer or paper, resulting in further public confusion.

Like many other organisations, Viridor has for years called for more standardised household waste collections and clearer labelling, rather than a switch-out of materials. It has also announced a £65m investment in the UK’s largest multi-polymer plant at Avonmouth, near Bristol, which hopes to put recycled plastic from bottles, pots, tubs and trays back in the economy as a viable and sustainable solution to virgin plastic.”

In spite of the potential pitfalls, Vegware has worked hard over the past few years to forge links with the waste sector – both collectors and facilities. Its lengthy consulting process with potential customers aims to keep confusion to a minimum and set up closed-loop systems.

Matthews adds: “We only advise customers of waste routes which are Vegware-approved where we’re confident in knowing the waste is being taken to the correct facilities and processed.

“We work to establish new waste routes for our customers, big or small – from large corporate office sites with more than 1,000 staff to small independent cafés. We also act as a waste broker in Bristol and much of Scotland through our Close the Loop composting collection service.”

Finally, the plastic pollution message has permeated our culture, yet the overall climate change impact is more of a challenging message to get across and is therefore sometimes left out.

Jimmy Dorrell, head of sustainable business at Clarity Environmental, says: “Plastic, if a commercially unrecyclable polymer or if it is irresponsibly discarded at the end of life, is a massive problem. However, in a closed-loop system or when effectively collected for local recycling, it can often be the lowest-climate-footprint option.”

Two good examples of this is cosmetics company Boots moving from plastic to paper bags, and Guinness replacing plastic can ring holders with a cardboard sleeve. Both of these options massively increase the amount of material used, so questions need to be asked as to whether these steps are addressing the real issue: the full environmental impact of packaging.

Dorrell adds: “The message is certainly not ‘don't make changes’. But do take a full lifecycle analysis approach. Ask if the packaging item can be eliminated or reduced before taking other steps.”

Dorrell gives the example of Carlsberg’s solution to the ring holder, which conjures up images of animals being caught in the often-littered packaging. Rather than switching to cardboard, it produced a recyclable glue which it says will reduce its plastic consumption by 76%.

Bates argues that the rise in green alternatives is actually leading to a rise in consumerism. She adds: “All the talk of producer responsibility has led people to believe that the manufacturers and retailers have all the responsibility. I don’t think any of us, in any section of society, is doing enough.

“We need to keep getting the message out that we can’t blame materials. The best way to reduce our waste and impact on the environment is to not buy stuff you don’t need. I think the rise in ‘green alternatives’ is frankly scary. We are encouraging people to buy more under the guise of helping the environment because it’s easier than changing the way we behave.”

Can we conclude that the only thing we know is that we know nothing? Admittedly, there are plenty of factors at play including how long a product will be in use for, where it will be collected and how it will be processed.

This makes it extremely challenging for producers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers to know the ‘best’ alternative, as this varies wildly on the criteria of the analysis.

We should not be demotivated by our good will not always having the virtuous impact intended. Instead, let’s try to make conscious decisions where possible and take advantage of our access to the streams of information regarding recyclability just a short internet search away.

Better yet, why not adopt the truly revolutionary method of simply consuming less. Now that truly is an environmentally friendly alternative.


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