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The packaging industry is rising to the challenge of plastic pollution

Business support for boosting packaging tax shows firms are taking plastic crisis seriously, argues Bunzl’s Joanna Gilroy

On March 24, a record 400 landmarks in the United Kingdom turned off their lights in support of a global call for action on climate change, as part of Earth Hour 2018. Created by the WWF, Earth Hour is the world’s largest grass-roots event in support of the planet, and this year during the event, the WWF released alarming figures on the issue of plastic pollution. 

The WWF has forecasted that over the next 12 years, plastic waste in the UK could increase by 20 per cent. Tanya Steele, CEO of the WWF comments: “This is more than a million tonnes of plastic waste, the equivalent of 87,000 more double decker buses worth of plastic waste each year.” 

If the WWF is correct, and we are going to see an increase in plastic waste, then this is going to significantly impact on what’s already a very serious, and very public, environmental challenge.

The media has thrown the issue of plastic pollution into the spotlight, and unlike other environmental issues like soil erosion or increasing CO2 levels, plastic pollution is very visible. It’s a problem that we witness daily, strewn on our streets, littering our parks and polluting our rivers.

We’ve seen the public keen to adopt different habits in the way they use and dispose of plastic products – but we must acknowledge that any long-term solution needs to involve the support of businesses in the supply chain for plastic products.

These businesses include manufacturers, distributors and retailers in the catering and hospitality industry, where we’ve seen public calls for taxes to be imposed on foodservice packaging, and an introduction of a 25p ‘latte levy’ on paper coffee cups. 

I can see why a ‘tax’ solution for foodservice packaging products is appealing.  It’s relatively straight-forward to implement and it would target members of the public who fail to consider reusable options.  However, would such taxes or levies placed on individual packaging products address the underlying problems causing pollution from single-use packaging? How much money would these taxes raise? How and where would this money be spent? Will this help consumers understand what packaging products can or cannot be recycled?

No food packaging product need ever be single use.  The issue of plastic waste from foodservice packaging exists because we use ‘technically recyclable’ or ‘technically compostable’ materials – but have no consistent recycling or composting collection systems in the UK to actually implement it. Consequently the average consumer is fundamentally confused as to what materials can be recycled. 

Any credible solution must address these challenges and I believe that the right type of tax could achieve just that. What many consumers do not realise is that the UK packaging industries already pay a specific tax for manufacturing, distributing, selling and using certain packaging products and materials. This tax is called a Packaging Recovery Note or PRN for short.

In a move that is to be highly commended, these industries, representing the UK’s major retailers, supermarkets, distributors and manufacturers, have sent a united message to government to increase the PRN tax.  These businesses want to pay more in order to improve recycling of single-use packaging products.

These businesses would like the PRN to be increased under six guiding principles:

  1. Every organisation related to these industries must contribute
  2. Packaging products that are actually recyclable and contain recycled content should be encouraged
  3. That a universal labelling system is adopted and consistent recycling collections developed
  4. The money raised must be kept as a transparent fund, and invested where needed by an independent body
  5. New accreditations are developed to measure and report on more accurate recycling rates
  6. Domestic recycling is prioritised over exporting recyclable materials

We must invest in and support innovation in our recycling infrastructure. We must address the confusion regarding what can or cannot be recycled. I believe the increase in PRN would create credible solutions on the problem of plastic solution – and marks the commitment of the UK packaging industry to spearhead change make recycling simpler.

Joanna Gilroy is head of sustainability at Bunzl 

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