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Anti-plastics regulations are leading to less sustainable packaging alternatives, report says

Industry is responding to the regulatory backlash against plastics by switching to other materials without considering their environmental impact relative to plastics, the new report from ICIS said, or whether sufficient local waste collection systems are in place.


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February 10, 2020 by Canadian Plastics

A new report suggests that the recent unprecedented consumer and regulatory backlash against plastics in packaging is actually leading to a switch to using less sustainable alternative materials.

Written by Mark Victory, senior editor at chemical research firm ICIS, the report notes that “industry is responding [to anti-plastics legislation] by switching to other materials without considering their environmental impact relative to plastics, or whether sufficient local waste collection systems are in place”.

As an example, Victory cites a UK parliamentary select committee report released in September 2019 that concluded that non-plastic food-packaging alternatives – on average – increase energy use by 2.2 times, CO2 emissions by 2.7%, and weight by 3.6 times.

“Indeed, the shift in things like bottled drinks from glass to materials such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that took place across recent decades was in part driven by its lower carbon usage and weight,” Victory wrote. “Coupled with this, food-contact paper and cardboard packaging typically needs to be treated with a plastic barrier, making it more difficult to recycle and doing little to counterbalance the problem of micro-plastic ocean leakage.”

But as Victory notes, these facts have done little to stem the tide of announcements of switches to non-plastic packaging from retailers and consumer brands, because the public perception is that these materials are always more sustainable, leading to rising pressure to abandon single-use plastics. “The same consumer pressure is not being felt to the same extent on other packaging types, despite plastics accounting for less than a quarter of packaging waste generated in Europe,” he wrote. “The knock-on effect of the public focus on single-use plastics is that this is concentrating regulatory efforts disproportionately on plastics because it is providing a mandate to act which is yet to exist for other packaging types, as conceded by the EU Commission at the ICIS PET Value Chain conference in March 2019.”

Not only are anti-plastics measures targeted specifically at the plastics industry “and not across environmentally harmful packaging as a whole,” Victory wrote, but the regulatory framework runs the risk of giving other packaging materials, such as glass and paper, an unfair competitive advantage. “Rather than helping to solve the problem of packaging waste and encouraging recycling, this could drive firms to move to alternative materials that are equally, or even more, damaging to the environment – shifting the problem rather than tackling it,” he wrote.

“Further encouraging this shift towards material choices that do little to improve end-of-life environmental impact would be the worst possible outcome for the planet,” he continued. “Regulation that encourages recycling or responsible waste disposal can only be a good thing, but narrowly focussed laws that shift the problem to other sectors could intensify the damage, or at a minimum leave it unchecked.”