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European plastic: are we guilty of shifting our rubbish to the Far East’s back yard?

Aug 1, 2019 | Consumer, Market Research, Packaging, Packaging Research and Analysis, Plastic Packaging, Recycling

When chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gets on his latest hobby horse, the nation (and other parts of Europe too) tends to sit up and take notice.

The award-winning food writer and TV personality has tackled a range of issues, among the first being his campaign against the intensive farming of chicken.

That was ten years ago. Along the way he’s tackled non-recyclable coffee cups and his latest campaign is against plastic, and in particular what European countries are doing – or perhaps, not doing – to reduce, reuse and recycle.

In the recent BBC television series War on Plastic, Fearnley-Whittingstall and fellow presenter Anita Rani looked at the UK and what happens to our plastic waste; what gets recycled and what ends up in landfill or polluting the planet. We fear the story they uncovered is typical of other European countries too.

The evidence was alarming. In one episode, Fearnley-Whittingstall visited Malaysia where many European countries send their plastic for recycling, only to find that in some areas there was little or no recycling going on.

This beautiful nation is now home to illegal plastic recycling plants, where very little recycling takes place. The mountains of plastic there contain supermarket and council plastic bags which have started life in European countries including the UK – goodness, how well travelled are those Sainsbury’s bags and Clover spread lids! The BBC programme found evidence that plastic waste from Europe as a whole was being palmed off on Malaysia, where it remains at best an eyesore and at worse a pollutant; often it is burnt, giving off toxic gases which affect the health of the local population.

It is clear that shifting our plastic problem from Europe to the Far East is not a solution. Surely it’s a case of Europe washing its hands of the issue?

What’s the answer to the plastic problem?

It’s simple and not simple, at the same time. The obvious answer is not to produce the plastic in the first place. What’s less clear is how we can do away with this plastic, particularly single use plastic, and what we replace it with.

At NOA we are champions of the paper packaging industry, and there is a clear opportunity here for the sector to capitalise on consumer demand and, indeed, the demand of lobbyists like Fearnley-Whittingstall, and opinion formers such as Sir David Attenborough, whose Blue Planet II series did so much to highlight the issue of plastic pollution.

Indeed, it’s not just the UK which has anti-plastic champions – you may have heard of The Netherlands’ Merijn Tinga, better known as The Plastic Soup Surfer. Tinga wants to stop plastic pollution of the marine environment and his campaigns are aimed at preventing plastic litter. The surfboards he uses are made from plastic litter and are a statement by themselves. Thanks in part to his efforts there is now a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles in Holland.

Whether they are surfing like Tinga, ferreting through Malay plastic mountains like Hugh, or campaigning into their nineties like Sir David, the lobbyists have a common goal: to cut the production of single use plastic.

So how can we reduce plastic production?

On a consumer level we can take a number of steps, such as buying loose fruit, using soap instead of shower gel or swapping plastic milk cartons for doorstep deliveries.

But what can industry do? There is clear consumer pressure for change and this is hitting home with retailers and in turn with brand owners, who are now looking at alternatives – they won’t want consumers boycotting their products in a plastic protest!

The bathroom is a haven for plastics – think shampoo, shower gel, deodorant etc – and recently Unilever (which makes brands such as Dove) announced a policy change. Unilever CEO Alan Jope said the company will ditch brands that don’t commit to a social mission or that don’t “stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier”. Does this include looking at the amount of plastic involved? We hope so.

There is surely an opportunity for paper, not least because the infrastructure for paper recycling is well established. We recycle around 85 per cent of paper products, compared to 15 per cent for plastic (see recent brand owner initiatives to increase this

Many ideas are being put forward – take a look at our blog on alternatives to plastic – but far more research needs to be done in this area and at NOA, that’s just what we’re doing.

We are currently working on our next multi-client report which looks into opportunities for the paper packaging sector, ranging from the easy wins (such as in the fruit and vegetable market) to the harder to get wins (for example, among chilled and frozen foods). Watch this space for more details… consider this a teaser.

At NOA, we specialise in market research, coaching and marketing services for the packaging industry. We are passionate about the packaging industry both on a personal level and a global level and the whole subject of packaging materials, the waste that is produced and what happens to it is one of our favourite topics. To find out how we could help you research your burning topics, or to invest in our most recent packaging industry report, please get in touch.