Plastic Not So Fantastic: Are We Addicted?

Chilling scenes of baby penguins caught in beer 4-pack rings and alarming declining ocean wildlife statistics have been shocking consumers for the best part of the last two decades.

But, its no exaggeration that the Blue Planet series is a tipping point on the plastic issue. Thus far, and no further is the mood of the moment. Yet ‘must recycle more’ has been on the mental to-do list for individuals, retailers and manufacturers for over a decade – so why is plastic still such a problem?

Well, figures released in November 2017 revealed that the amount of plastic items found on the seabed of British waters had risen by 158% on the previous year, and 222% on the average for 1992-94. Almost 78% of this litter is plastic, the vast majority non-recyclable.

This follows years of decline – and whilst changes have been attributed to some extent to weather fluctuations – the sharp rise globally in plastic usage means this is no coincidence.

The political pledges are now in play – the EU ‘declared war’ on plastic waste earlier this month, promising to ensure that every piece of plastic on the Continent is reusable or recyclable by 2030. Following suit, the UK Prime Minister committed Britain to excluding all ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042.

The UK retailer Iceland pledged to remove all plastic from their own label business within 5 years, breaking ranks and stealing a march on other retailers. In comparison Coke’s plaedge to have the whole business recyclable by 2030 looks conservative and timid. Unilever are slightly more ambitious by making a similar pledge effective by 2025.

They are certainly the most ambitious plastic related pledges in history, rendering 2015’s plastic bag charges pitiful in comparison. Despite concerns from environmental groups that the pledges ‘lack urgency, detail and bite’, the opposite is worrying – that eliminating all ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042 (or 2030 within the EU) simply might not be attainable.

One of the reasons behind this concern is the sheer volume of plastic we use and throw away globally, every day. A million plastic bottles alone are bought every minute around the world, expected to jump another 20% by 2021 – and bottles only represent part of the picture. The food industry is one of the heaviest users of plastics in packaging, and the dirty little secret is that only 1/3 is recycled or even recyclable.

Part of the UK government’s 25 year strategy to ‘eliminate all avoidable plastic waste’. involves setting up ‘plastic free aisles’ for goods with no packaging, as well as pressuring industries to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products.

This does beg the question however, just what is ‘avoidable’ plastic waste, and how is unavoidable waste categorised as such?

In an industry such as food, plastic is widely regarded as the cheapest, simplest and most effective way to transport and preserve many foods such as raw meats, fish, ready meals and so on. In reality, just how avoidable is this waste?

True, the food industry needs to hugely evaluate and reform how it packages goods – and it has already begun to do this. Innovation in food packaging grows significantly in scale each year – producing new, sustainable ideas that do point towards a plastic-free future, with the growth of compostables and recyclables growing.

The question, however, is just how distant is that future?

Whilst innovation does gain speed every year, without huge amounts of resources, it is hugely difficult to introduce into the mainstream – even 25 years presents a humungous challenge.

In addition, as many Iceland own label suppliers will be asking, ‘who is going to pay for plastic free packaging’, especially in an era of deflationary food prices and margins.

The plastics debate in the food industry certainly has further to run over the coming few years.
Do you have a packaging related query? Contact Roseanna at, or cal us on +44 (0) 1803 203387.

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