For many, the amount of waste we produce is on a par with global warming and climate change as an issue of environmental importance,58 despite not having a Greta Thunberg-esque figure to spearhead awareness and activism.
Images of littered single-use plastic were unfairly attributed to recent Extinction Rebellion protests, in some corners prompting stronger responses than to the potential death of our planet.59 With that level of consumer concern, it’s no surprise that the packaging of consumer goods – and the waste as a result – continued to receive notable media attention in 2019.
Tesco and Waitrose both made national news for the introduction of ‘packaging-free’ trials in selected stores, with shoppers able to bring their own reusable containers to stock up on cereals, pasta, and even beer and wine.60 Despite these being in only a handful of stores, more than one-third (36%) of the UK public say they are aware of ‘stores trialling packaging-free’ initiatives’, while six in ten (61%) say they would consider using them if they were available close to where they live.61
As well as initiatives to reduce the amount of packaging in their own-brand products, supermarkets have announced plans to ‘encourage’ product manufacturers to reduce the amount of unnecessary or hard-to-recycle packaging that appears on their shelves. Similarly, e-commerce giant Amazon saw the latest iteration of its ‘Frustration-Free Packaging’ (FFP) initiative come into force in October, penalising manufacturers of larger or heavier items if Amazon are required to use additional packaging materials for safe shipping.62 Such actions are unsurprising when more than one-quarter of the British public (26%) say that they would stop going to shops that use a lot of non-recyclable packaging.
The UK Government’s Environment Bill63 confirmed intentions to follow the ‘polluter pays’ principle and introduce legislation to ensure producers ‘pay the full net cost of dealing with their packaging waste’. It also intends to implement deposit return schemes to make it ‘easier for people to make the right choice when they come to dispose of products’. Despite not yet being policy across the UK – the Scottish Government unveiled a proposal that includes a 20p return value for drinks containers in May this year64 – more than a third of people in the UK (38%) said they heard or read about a plastic bottle deposit-return scheme, and more than two-thirds (68%) said they would consider using it if available near to where they live.65 Of course, to those of us of a certain age (or those who have lived in countries such as Sweden), the deposit-return scheme isn’t a new initiative at all …
Recycling isn’t a new idea now either, but work needs to be done to harmonise what is accepted across local authority schemes, and to help people better understand what can and cannot be recycled. Manufacturers themselves are also getting in on the act, particularly where their packaging materials are less easily recycled. Coffee chains Costa and Pret are conspicuously ‘doing their bit’ by accepting any brand’s disposable cup for recycling at any of their stores: one-third (34%) of UK adults said they were aware of this initiative.66
With societal awareness and pressure, government legislation and commercial initiatives all pushing for change, we expect a lot more action in 2020. However, it is less clear whether the full complexity of some of these issues – such as the positive roles of plastic in reducing food spoilage or distribution emissions – will be fully understood and embraced. In India, vast amounts of food never even reach consumers as they spoil or get contaminated en route. In contrast, in the west, such losses are minimal, but consumers throw away 18% of all food they buy.67 Reducing overconsumption will ultimately be as important as reducing packaging.