Why we need radical interventions to deal with marine plastics

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
2.3 million tonnes of plastic packaging is placed on the UK market every year

Awareness of the global waste crisis being caused by plastic in the sea is growing, but the momentum behind finding a solution is increasing painfully slowly.

Zero Waste Europe ran a blog recently that told the tale of the super worms that eat plastic. Typically they’re found in beehives, munching on wax. But researchers at Stanford University have discovered that digesting beeswax involves breaking down similar types of chemical bonds to the ones found in polyethylene.

Zero Waste Europe noted the findings were interesting, but there is a much simpler solution to the “huge plastic pollution problem”, and that is “to have less plastic”.

And so from scientists in Stanford to an ex-footballer in Devon. Richard Eckersley and his wife Nicola have set up a packaging-free supermarket in Totnes. "Nothing comes through the door here unless it’s unpackaged and organic,” he told The Times.

Shoppers bring their own pots, jars and containers. It’s a simple (and very worthy) concept, but much like the worms, it’s unlikely to go mainstream anytime soon.

And therein lies the problem with plastics. Whether it's super-worms, waste-free shops or new ‘greener’ materials, magical solutions for the future are in abundance. But what do we do today with the 2.3 million tonnes of plastic packaging placed on the UK market?

Last year, only 21% (0.5 million tonnes) of those 2.3 million tonnes was collected for recycling, according to figures compiled by Recoup. The sector is, as the organisation’s CEO noted, “in transition”. Hardly surprising given: Brexit and the impact it will have on markets and legislation; company acquisitions and reprocessor administrations; and a “continued lack of consumer education”. The rollout of new services has also slowed.

Crucially, scrutiny of packaging has intensified as well, not least in respect of marine litter. New studies have found microplastics in tap water and sea salt bought in supermarkets.

Added to the previous research found them in honey, beer and commercial fish, and it’s not surprising that the spotlight is on the ubiquity of plastic – the impact it has on the environment, and might have on our health.

Unfortunately there is no single place that can plug the plastic seeping into the oceans, but recycling more packaging would be a decent start. Look at the data on beach cleans, and single-use plastic items tend to be the most abundant.

Calls from Defra

Even Defra has been caught up in the wave of interest. “There is more we can do to protect our oceans, so we will explore new methods of reducing the amount of plastic – in particular plastic bottles – entering our seas,” said Michael Gove in July, in his first major speech as environment secretary.

For this, Gove will be able to call on research being compiled by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). In September, the EAC relaunched an inquiry into plastic bottles and disposable coffee cups which had previously been put on hold during the general election. Only 57% of plastic bottles are recycled, so it’s a fair bet that deposit return schemes (DRS) will be placed front and centre; not that the concept needed a nudge.

Just a week or so before the EAC’s announcement, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon gave the green light for a DRS, and she also started to pull together an expert panel to examine how to reduce demand for single-use items such as coffee cups. Gove will be watching with interest from Westminster, but how would the industry help drive real change?

“If the focus is on recycling more plastics then we need a more consistent approach to plastics collection and targeted campaigns to raise awareness about the less-well-understood or recognised materials,” says Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez Recycling & Recovery UK. “It would be nice if the government said it wants a universal recycling policy,” adds Kevin Vyse, senior packaging technologist and circular economy lead at Marks & Spencer.

Given the diversity of plastics now available, attention often turns to the standardisation of collections. But often the discussions can end up going round in circles as materials drop in and out of fashion. “PVC was reducing steadily due to a growing awareness of the problems it causes, but now it appears to be on the rise again,” explains Viridor’s head of recycling assets (polymers) Jeremy Blake.

A lot of work was also done on lightweighting products to reduce the amount of polymer used, but “in some cases this has got to the point where it is too thin to effectively recycle”, he adds.

It’s an example of where one end of the resource chain isn’t communicating with the other. Another is green and clear bottles. Both are PET, but the former is devalued as a recyclable because of the pigment. As Vyse at Marks & Spencer suggests: “The highest-value materials will be picked; the rest will be burned or buried.”

For Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth University, the issue is a lack of thought at the design stage. “Why is the colouring there? It’s to do with marketing. I have no problem with that but it’s taking one of our most recyclable polymers and making it highly unlikely to be recycled – that’s a real shame,” he said in a recent podcast for The Guardian.

Manufacturer responsibility?

It’s hard not to get mad at the marketing men. “They heavily influence the specifications,” explains Mark Hilton, resource efficiency lead at Eunomia, “so if a steak looks better in a black tray then they will resist the clear one. There are generally options [to ensure] the packaging is fit for purpose and recyclable,” he adds.

It’s an important point. The difference between readily recyclable and theoretically recyclable is what landed the big coffee shop chains in hot water recently: they can say pretty much anything is recyclable, but that doesn’t mean it is easy or economical to recycle it.

Product protection is always paramount (plastics have done much to help remove waste from supply chains), but while there are times when a mixture of plastics are needed to do the job, there are also options available to reduce the number of materials on the market.

“Do we really need to use all of these polymers in different combinations?” Hilton wonders. “I understand everyone is looking at the commercial advantages from new features, but could we simplify all of this?”

Marks & Spencer is trying to do just that – the retailer wants just one polymer for all its packaging. Is this another ‘super worm’? “We’re not intending to have a miracle cure within five years,” says Vyse, “but we want a policy in place [soon].” They can’t do this alone, though: Marks & Spencer might be seen as one of the most sustainable businesses in the, but it represents a mere 5% of the UK food market.

That isn’t to say there hasn’t been collaboration on plastic packaging. There are high hopes for Ceflex, for example, an industry consortium focused on flexible packaging – a material that isn’t widely recycled and often contaminates other streams. In the UK there is also the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan, as well as the government's promised new waste strategy. In Europe, a new Plastics Strategy is being developed.

Read admits he is a “big fan” of the simplification and harmonisation of the polymers placed on the market, but discussions need to happen now, he says, “otherwise it will always be put off as ‘too difficult’”.

At such times, a kick up the backside helps, says Vyse. For example, what celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did with coffee cups. “What his campaign did is put the stakeholders in the same room,” Vyse explains. “We’re forced together and find huge amounts of synergy.”

Filling a policy vacuum

Hugh’s welly boot is one thing, but is it time for more controversial interventions, such as a DRS, more taxes, or other legislation? “If there was a clear commercial driver or a strong government-led strategy then infrastructure would be bankable and developed, while collection systems would work to get the materials in the right way to minimise contamination and maximise value,” says Read.

“In practical terms, if we want to turn things around quite quickly then we need to work with what we’ve got in terms of waste management systems rather than requiring huge new investment,” adds Hilton at Eunomia. He is working with the European Commission on the Plastics Strategy, which is due to be published later this year.

They are looking at strengthening the EU Essential Requirements for Packaging as one potential approach, given that the current regulations are full of loopholes and barely enforced. Post-Brexit, the UK government may well have other ideas, of course.

Adrian Griffiths, CEO of Recycling Technologies, suggests change needs to be “incremental rather than dramatic”. It’s a fair point – both economically and socially – given the knife edge on which many reprocessors currently sit.

“This is a fragile market we are talking about," says Hilton, "so when the oil price is high, everything is fine. But as we’ve seen, if the oil price drops or demand from China slows, the bottom falls out of the market and those on tight margins dealing with low-value materials are the first to sink.”

Which brings us back to those pieces floating around the marine environment. A refuse truck’s worth of plastic is dumped in the sea every minute, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and by 2050, plastic production could almost quadruple. Allow those figures to sink in for a minute (while another truck of plastic waste is dumped) and it’s easy to see why radical – if not magical – interventions are urgently needed.

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