The rationale for the development of plastic – and specifically the plastic bag – is a reminder that we should prioritise reusing the plastic we consume.
So says South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) CEO, Charlotte Metcalf.
Metcalf admitted she herself was reminded of the link between the two substances while reading an interview with WWF sustainable materials specialist Paula Chin in Packaging Insights.
“Ms. Chin reminded readers that plastic was invented to replace the use of elephant ivory for billiard balls in the 1800s, and averted an ecological disaster, while the plastic bag was intended to be reusable when it was invented in 1962.
“These two facts – that plastic can be a viable replacement for other materials with significant environment footprints and can be reused – as well as her considerable knowledge, experience and research inform her stance, which she shared with Packaging Insights.
“This is that replacing plastic with alternative packaging materials is not the answer to pollution and may even worsen industry’s environmental impact. Instead, Ms. Chin believes a systems-based approach focusing on reuse and refill models must be implemented in which policymakers and businesses are held fully accountable.
“This is one that SANBWA and its members fully buy into,” she said.
You can read the full interview here: https://www.packaginginsights.com/news/wwf-sustainable-materials-specialist-beware-plastic-replacements-and-prioritize-reuse.html
Some of the key points made by Ms. Chin include:
- While the war on single-use items is necessary, misperceptions about the role of plastics abound. The public must shift their attention to wider concerns over the full life cycle of packaging materials. It’s not: ‘all plastics are bad, and everything else is good’. In fact, Green Alliance’s 2020 Fixing the System report, which showed switching all current consumption of UK plastic packaging (1.6 million metric tons) on a like-for-like basis to the other materials could almost triple carbon emissions
- A globalised supply chain means the full life cycle of material must be considered both environmentally and socially. In recent years, industry has rightly been very focused on plastic pollution, but there’s been a lot of switching to different materials as businesses move away from plastics. In the long run, this could lead to worse environmental and social impacts as impacts shift to other supply chains.
- Single-use packaging is still a short-term use of resources, regardless of the material. The embedded impacts associated with the sourcing of those materials contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss, so we need to use them more efficiently and consider them more precious.
- We need to prioritise tackling our single-use culture overall by incentivising a shift to reusable, refillable alternatives. While many businesses (The Bodyshop is one) are already running their own initiatives to support consumers to experience reuse and refill systems, it’s a very piecemeal approach driven by individual businesses.
According to Metcalf, Chin’s thinking has significant relevance in the South African context.
“There is enormous pressure to reduce the amount of packaging waste sent to our country’s landfills or which ends up as visible litter in the environment. As a result, the Government is implementing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation with respect to packaging.
“Within this, the adoption of ‘design for recycling’ and ‘a circular economy’ play a big role, and one that the whole value chain needs to be a part of. However, we can only do so if we are aware and educated about the issues the country’s recycling industry faces,” said Metcalf.
“Instead of following international trends blindly, producers, consumers and legislators must do what’s best for South Africa. And they can do that by critically examining the new technologies mooted to determine if they apply to the South African situation or if they would disrupt the very successful recycling streams that we have.”
“For example, with respect to the bottled water industry, many are punting biodegradable bottles. South Africa’s recycling ecosystem, however, can’t accommodate these at present. And, if they are – by mistake – recycled with PET, the PET is contaminated and rendered worthless.
“Another example is the ‘box’ or ‘carton’. There are very few recycling plants in South Africa that can separate the cardboard from the ‘sleeve’ that ensures it doesn’t leak. As a result, they can’t be recycled and yet people believe boxed water is an alternative to PET,” she said.
“Finally, a study conducted by Trayak LLC, a packaging design and manufacturing consultancy based in the USA, has highlighted that the most sustainable option for packaged water is the 500 ml PET bottle.
“Using its independent and science-based software platform and Comparative Packaging Assessment (COMPASS) methodology, it conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) of five different industry average packaging formats – the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottle, a PET soda bottle, an aluminium can, a beverage carton and a glass bottle.
“The results of the comparison between the five industry average beverage containers showed the PET water bottle as the least environmentally impactful option, and therefore the preferred container for packaged water.”