The Politics of Sustainability; FACT OR FICTION?
Packaging Innovations 2019 was a great show but it struck me that it was dominated by eco, ‘green thinking' – sustainability, compostability and biodegradability were the buzz phrases of the event.
It got me thinking about and questioning some of the claims made about the materials and packaging components on show. From glass to PET, to inks to paper, pallets to tin and bamboo plates, the list goes on! What was clearly evident at the show, in my opinion, was a disturbing trend to label things as ‘green’ for the most spurious of reasons.
Bio-plastics decompose in three to six months so the claim goes. Compostable, just how is this being defined – home compostable or industrial compostable, or is it being defined at all? The reality is complex; a bioplastic in landfill, with the absence of light, heat and moisture, will never decompose and, if it ends up in the wrong waste stream, it will negatively impact recyclability. If something is described as home compostable, does it need ‘other’ green and brown materials mixed in? The answer is often yes, so then is the material actually compostable?
The picture painted for the general public and politicians is that compostable is good but caveats do exist. And that’s why the whole recycling story spins like a top – the story isn’t so black and white.
Are we being coerced through political spin, driven by the public pressure of folks who watch Blue Planet and have had holidays to Bali ruined by plastic waste washing up on the beach thanks to an unregulated recycling industry?
Governments around the world allow the export of poor quality waste but this is not managed in any formal way. Banning exports to countries which accept waste, but have no regulations around waste recycling, would be a first step in the right direction. However, step two would most certainly be about creating a coherent and sensible policy that encourages technological developments in waste handling processes in order that waste streams become truly capable of being used as a raw material.
The country where waste is generated must be held accountable for its disposal. The last time I looked at an atlas or Google Earth, the coast of the UK wasn’t next door to the Pacific and yet the UK Government has requested consultation (a request from the Treasury!) on waste and recycling. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the direction the wind is blowing on this issue.
The UK government must take responsibility for implementing a sound recycling infrastructure, and I’m not talking about imposing rules around incorporating 30% recyclate into packaging (that’s newish news!!) or imposing a punitive tax. It needs to force local authorities to do the right thing, in terms of taking a sensible approach to the recycling of packaging and in developing a coherent strategy that rewards the generation of quality raw materials, instead of simply bending to the public or materials lobby.
Taxing companies which do not incorporate 30% recycled content into packaging will be significant - in some sectors that is going to be a massive problem.
In hazardous goods, can a company be sure that the quality of the HDPE in a chemical container is the same as when the pack was tested with virgin polymer? In pharmaceuticals, can you be sure the blister pack meets the same performance characteristics for shelf life and performance that the virgin materials did?
With such a policy in place, there then becomes an issue around recyclate availability; demand will outstrip supply resulting in higher prices, so companies may escape the tax but pay more for their recycled materials. Whatever the scenario, it will cost industry and ultimately, the consumer, more, whilst the revenue finds its self another route towards the worst taxes of all - stealth!
As an industry, we must lobby and work together as a Collective; plastic and glass, board and bamboo, paper and metal. We need to work for a common good, stop the infighting and maybe we can find the right answer for the good of the industry and the planet!