Packaging Guilt

How much of packaging do we open, use and throw in a day? Have you ever counted?

Let’s see, tea and coffee bags, egg trays, milk cartons, plastic bottles, plastic wrapped sandwiches, crisps/snack packets, coffee cups, polythene food wrappings from the supermarket, and the list goes on. We have only skim the surface of packaging used for the food that we eat in a day. There’s more – what about packaging for other household consumables such as personal hygiene items, beauty and care, stationery, etc.

When I put my disposal bags out each week for the garbage collectors, I usually have a few of the recycling bags as compared to only one black bag for the landfill.

On the upside, one can say that packaging serves certain useful purposes but on the downside, there is a huge amount of waste, as witnessed especially by our recent festive season of excessive consumption and the packaging.  Place this against the recent reports of declining  recycling rates in the UK and it does compound the problem of packaging.

Not so long ago, we managed very well without many of the packaging we go through today. We used to get our milk in glass bottles and fish and chips on greasy brown paper, loose leaf and our fruits and vegetables in brown paper bags.  Milk in the UK used to be 94% bottled but now only about 4% is bottled.

We do long for those bygone days but as the same time without much thought or guilty conscience lap up the convenience of modern consumerism

Who are the contributors to this packaging guilt? 

Wasted wrapping

The average UK householder throws away an estimated 400g of packaging every day [pdf] and 25% of household waste is packaging [pdf]. Even the simplest of groceries are vacuum packed on a moulded polystyrene bed, covered in a hard plastic shell, wrapped in polythene!  Online companies are famous for excessive packaging from larger than necessary corrugated box that is only 30 to40% recyclable and layer of bubble and plastic wrap to ‘miles of plastic tape!

Refrigeration

When transporting non-durable goods, refrigeration is necessary to extend the shelf life and maintain the freshness of the produce. But refrigeration in trucks and HGVs that transport our food is not environmentally friendly as it is energy intensive; not to mention the danger of leaking HFC refrigerants. And if the fridges are powered by diesel they emit huge amounts of toxic nitrogen oxides and particles that contribute to air pollution.

Transportation

Refrigeration and excessive heavy packaging add to the weight of HGVs. 1m transport refrigeration units on European streets have the equivalent impact on air pollution as up to 56m diesel cars and HGVs produce 22% of transport’s CO2 land transport emissions, while only accounting for 5% of vehicles.

Plastics

More than half of all goods in Europe are packaged in plastic; on the average, 29 kg per person each year. Of the 57 million tonnes of plastics produced in Europe annually, 39% is packaging.  Plastic is the preferred manufacturer choice as it is light and strong. Unfortunately, 8m tonnes [pdf] of plastic end up in the ocean. By 2050, it is predicted, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. Whilst every effort is made to encourage the recycling of plastic in the UK, most of the plastic film used in carrier bags and other packaging ends up in the landfill; and more than 15 million plastic bottles a day are not recycled.

Melinda Watson, the founder of Raw Foundation  said, “A staggering 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all: 40% is ladled, and 32% leaks out the collection system.”

Bad design, poor recycling

Some of the more famous culprits are single-use plastic and plastic packaging, coffee cups, drink cartons, plastic stirrers, coffee pods, microbeads and Tetra Pak cartons. The latter, because they are made of several materials which are difficult to separate and recycle – card, aluminium and plastic coating.

The Infamous takeaway Coffee Cup

The invasion of the so-called recyclable coffee cup with its plastic lid and cardboard sleeve, has transformed the coffee industry and about 7m cups a day (a whooping more than 2.5b cups a year) are generously handed out by coffee shops in the UK. Yet reportedly fewer than one in 400 cups is recycled.

The design of these cups – lined with polyethylene to make it waterproof and prevent the paper going soggy – makes recycling difficult and costly.  Most recycling plants are not able to separate the paper from the plastic. Only two recycling plants in the UK so far, can effectively separate these two materials using specialist technology.

There was a call to levy a cup tax, like the 5p levy on carrier bags; to encourage consumers to use reusable cups.  But the problem is more complex. The plastic bag tax was simpler as shoppers could easily switch to reusable carrier bags especially for grocery shopping. But how does one bring along reusable china coffee mug in one’s Prada bag and where does one clean the mug after use? Furthermore, a takeaway coffee is an indulgence that consumers may hang on to even at a small price.

Cafes and coffee shops are doing their bit in having in-store bins for these cups. But the question that begs an answer is why are they handed out for customers that dine in too?  Shouldn’t the amount be at least controlled by using reusable cups for dine-in customers?

Another issue is whether reusable cups are more environmentally friendly than paper cups. There is a lack of lifecycle analysis on whether they offer a reduced environmental footprint.

The Supply Chain

Most coffee shops admit that the rate of used coffee cups and coffee pods being dropped in the respective shops’ drop off points and bins is low. Both businesses and consumers have to pay serious notice to ensure that the recyclable coffee cups and pods get recycled! Whether this happens will depend on where they land after use. If they are tossed into a dustbin, they will most certainly land in the landfill instead of the recycling plant.

If they do land in a recycling bin, then they have to find their way to the only two specialist facilities in the UK that have the capability to strip the plastic lining off the cups and recycle the paper. The lack of effective recycling would surprise many businesses and eco-conscious consumers.  Most do not really question what really happens to the waste. We need to be aware and question more.

The supply chain involves different players. It can therefore be difficult educating and communicating the message all the way through it and will can also incur costs.

Manufacturer’s responsibility does not end as soon as the product leaves the factories and the distributor’s responsibility does not end when the product reaches the consumer. Consumers too cannot absolve themselves of any responsibility of how the packaging is disposed off after use.

Look out for our next blog on,  Packing Guilt – Making Peace.