Under pressure from the public to act on plastic pollution, companies are on the verge of swapping to other materials with new, and potentially greater, environmental consequences, including higher carbon emissions.
New research for the Circular Economy Task Force, based on anonymised interviews from leading UK supermarkets and brands, reveals that, in the absence of government direction, a disjointed and potentially counterproductive approach to solving plastic pollution is emerging. 
More than two years on from the release of Blue Planet II, relatively little has changed, with supermarkets still putting the equivalent of 900 pieces of single use plastic on the shelf for every person living in the UK every year.
The new report, Plastic promises: what the grocery sector is really doing about packaging, quotes industry insiders, showing that bigger changes are on the way that could have negative consequences, including higher carbon emissions and lower packaging recyclability.
Key quotes from the report:
“Consumers… are hugely confused about what bio-based, compostable and biodegradable mean.”
A particular concern is compostable or ‘biodegradable’ plastic. Over 80 per cent of consumers think this is environmentally friendly, but there is little understanding of what the terms mean and how the material should be dealt with once used. Our interviewees wanted a clearer approach to where it should be used and how it should be marked to avoid causing more problems. Confusion, they worried, could potentially harm the environment if people either put ‘compostable’ plastic in with conventional plastic, or litter material, wrongly assuming it will biodegrade in the open environment. Some companies that had tried using this type of plastic also suggested that material did not degrade as expected in real life conditions.
“We are aware that [by switching from plastic to other materials] we may, in some cases, be increasing our carbon footprint.”
Single use plastic is being replaced by other single use packaging, like paper bags and compostable or wooden cutlery. Businesses admit that these decisions are sometimes being made without fully evaluating the environmental impact of the alternatives.
“Packaging technology innovations can be quite the competitive advantage in the current climate.”
Despite shared aims and joint commitments from companies in the grocery sector, individual companies are developing their own policies around plastic to gain competitive advantage which could end up making environmental problems worse.
“If I could have a magic wand, I’d like to see more joined up, top-down government intervention…We would like to see government be braver.”
Perhaps surprisingly, many companies want the government to have a bigger role in directing future developments and setting standards so action is coherent across the industry.
Supporting quotes for the report:
Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, said:
“If we aren’t careful, short term decisions could cause longer term problems for establishing a true circular economy. As the war on plastics continues to rage, avoiding unintended consequences should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and that includes government, industry and, of course, consumers. Change must be managed and planned if we’re to move towards fully closed-loop systems for recycling and, more importantly, reuse.
“That means we need to think much more carefully (and quickly) about how materials like compostable plastic are introduced. We must ensure a system where they are used where they make sense and in a way that people will understand to limit contamination and leakage.”
Dan Cooke, head of sustainability at Viridor, said:
“The often kneejerk reactions of some buyers and brands can cause frustration for recycling companies as they move away from inherently recyclable packaging types into materials like coated cardboard and composites that are less recyclable and that can have a worse environmental impact.
“We work closely with supermarkets and brand owners on recyclability and to align recycling services with their requirements. There’s still an obvious need for improved collaboration and better policy to enable investment in technology and infrastructure that will sustainably raise recycling rates for post-consumer materials.”
Richard Kirkman, Veolia UK’s chief technology and innovation officer, said:
“This report is a reality check – it shows what’s happening with plastics on the ground and why we need to keep a level head. Let’s follow the science and ensure producers and consumers make sound material choices in line with the progressive resources and waste strategy.”
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, said:
“The public are right to be outraged about plastic pollution. But what we don’t want is, a few years down the line, for them to be outraged about new environmental problems caused by the alternatives. We need to address the root of the problem, our throwaway society.
“Companies need much more help from the government to tackle plastic pollution without making climate change and other environmental impacts worse in the process.”
Senior Policy Adviser – Resources, Green Alliance (available for interview)
Phone: 020 7630 4529
About the Green Alliance
Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank, focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. With a track record of over 35 years, Green Alliance has worked with the most influential leaders from the NGO, business, academic and political communities. Our work generates new thinking and dialogue, and has increased political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.
 Plastic promises: what the grocery sector is really doing about packaging is available at: https://www.green-alliance.org.uk/resources/Plastic_promises.pdf
The research is published as part of Green Alliance’s work for the Circular Economy Task Force, a business led a forum for policy, innovation and business thinking on resource use in the UK. The current members include Kingfisher, PwC, SUEZ, Veolia and Viridor.