A whopping 350m tonnes of plastic is produced every year, according to A Plastic Ocean, who estimates 8m tonnes ends up in the ocean.
Unless urgent action is taken, it is predicted there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.
What kind of ‘urgent action’ is required? In Disposing of the plastic problem: Part one, FoodNavigator asked stakeholders who is responsible for turning the tide on plastic pollution.
In part two, we ask the same players – Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB, NGO A Plastic Planet, and plastic alternative start-up Sulapac – what more industry and governments can do to tackle the problem. And who should play a bigger role in consumer education?
How much do consumers know about plastic pollution?
According to alt plastic start-up Sulapac, ‘a lot’ of work still needs to be done in educating consumers.
The Helsinki-based company is developing bio-based replacements for single-use plastic, made from a blend of wood and natural binders. In the food and beverage space, Sulapac has produced replacements for plastic straws and cutlery.
“Over 300m tons of plastic is produced every year, and only a small percentage gets recycled,” CEO and co-founder Suvi Haimi told FoodNavigator. “A lot of that plastic is necessary to make useful things that last, but all too often, it ends up in the wrong place. That plastic degrades into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastics, which threatens ecosystems and human health.
“However, this is not common knowledge yet.”
Everyone should understand the basics about plastics, stressed Haimi. Firstly, consumers should know that traditional fossil-based plastic lasts ‘forever’. “It doesn’t disappear, but just breaks into microplastics over time, causing a health threat to humans and animals.”
The co-founder continued: “The best way to protect future generations and our planet is to replace conventional plastics with materials that biodegrade without leaving permanent microplastics behind as much as possible as quickly as possible.”
How can the private sector help?
For Sulapac, consumer education presents an opportunity for brands to position themselves as an ‘eco-friendly forerunner’ that ‘stays ahead of the game’ in the future.
“Transparent, science-backed claims provide strategic value for companies that aim to achieve ambitious sustainability targets.
“By using truly sustainable materials, brands can meet conscious consumer demands and boost their appeal.”
In the UK, Coca-Cola is one such company communicating its sustainability credentials to consumers.
Businesses ‘undoubtedly’ have a responsibility to encourage more consumers to recycle, stressed Sam Jones, Head of Climate and Sustainability at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB.
“We continue to communicate our sustainability credentials to consumers, highlighting that all 500ml plastic bottles across our core brands in GB are now made with 100% recycled plastic (rPET) [excluding the cap and label], and using our brands to urge more people to recycle, with ‘Please Recycle Me’ messaging on 500ml bottle caps.”
Jones similarly sees the opportunity available for businesses to encourage a shift in consumer behaviours.
“Never has the public been so engaged with the subject of sustainability, so we have a huge opportunity to bring real change. But businesses must work collaboratively, take risks, and learn from one another to really help shift the dial.”
Non-for-profit A Plastic Planet, which aims to dramatically reduce the use of single-use plastic packaging, wants to draw the attention away from the consumer.
“We need to stop blaming the consumer,” A Plastic Planet’s Chief Changemaker, Sian Sutherland, told FoodNavigator. “It’s not their problem.
“They buy what they are sold and industry needs to simply sell them something different. And, of course, governments need to mandate that they do this fast.”
What more can governments do to reduce plastic waste?
What more can governments do to reduce plastic waste?
One way governments can advance the fight against plastic pollution is by investing in recycling infrastructure and developing legislation.
As Sulapac’s Haimi lamented in Disposing of the plastic problem: Part one, both vary regionally, with many countries not allowing bio-based, biodegradable packaging in industrial composting systems.
Another action governments are increasingly implementing is deposit recycling schemes (DRS), designed to incentivise recycling. Under a DRS, consumers are charged an additional deposit fee when they buy a beverage in a single-use container. The deposit is redeemed when the consumer returns the empty container to a designated point.
In the UK, the first national DRS was passed by the Scottish Parliament in May 2020. The scheme is due to go live in England this year.
Coca-Cola is supportive of the scheme. “The availability of material remains a significant obstacle in our efforts to achieve 100% rPET across all of our bottles, so more needs to be done to ensure that there is enough high-grade used plastic that is suitable to be reused is captured and recycled,” said Jones,
“It’s why we’re supporting the introduction of a well-designed DRS, which is critical to ensuring we improve recycling rates in GB and help to create a more circular economy for plastics.”
A Plastic Planet’s Sutherland believes governments can take more drastic action, such as banning more ‘wrong uses’ of plastic, since ‘most packaging can be replaced’.
“Ban fossil fuels in fashion – this would clean up the fashion industry very fast as exploitative fast fashion cannot exist without plastic textiles,” we were told.
“Reward material innovation and invest in refillable systems throughout whole cities,” Sutherland continued.
“We need to normalise refill fast, making it convenient for shoppers and mandating that a large percentage of our supermarkets floor space is dedicated to refill solutions.”
Sulapac’s Hami is similarly looking to long-term solutions. Society needs governments to think critically, be open-minded, and collaborate, she told this publication.
“Challenge your beliefs, seek for science-based information, and look for long-term solutions for the common good. Together we can save the world from plastic waste."
Disposing of the plastic problem: Who is responsible for turning the tide on pollution? can be read in full here.