While many shoppers bemoan the lack of plastic free progress, a new study suggests 'knee jerk efforts' to reduce plastic packaging could be harming the environment as some alternatives are potentially even worse.
The report by think tank Green Alliance was based on confidential and anonymised interviews with major supermarkets, food companies and beverage firms.
Researcher Libby Peake aimed to understand how they are 'responding to public pressure' and coping with the 'challenges of plastic pollution and packaging sustainability'.
She discovered: "Brands report that decisions to switch away from plastic are often made without considering the environmental impact of the substitute materials chosen - or whether or not there is adequate collection and treatment infrastructure in place for them."
The report gives an example: "UK supermarkets, including Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have recently switched from single-use plastic bags for loose produce and bakery items, for example, replacing them with single-use paper bags in some instances.
"This is a worrying trend, as paper bags, which are often just as unnecessary as their plastic counterparts, can have much higher carbon impacts, though this can depend on material sources and product specification.
"A 2011 study for the Northern Ireland Assembly found that paper bags generally require four times as much energy to manufacture as plastic bags."
"A paper bag would need to be reused 43 times to have a lower impact than the average plastic bag"
"A more recent study in Denmark concluded that while paper bags can be similar to plastic in terms of climate impact if they are reused as bin liners, they do not perform as well on other indicators.
"When factors like ozone depletion, human and ecosystem toxicity and water and air pollution are accounted for , a paper bag would need to be reused 43 times to have a lower impact than the average plastic bag."
The overall findings suggest: "There have been some minor changes, for the most part switching from one single use option to another.
"These include the use of new types of material to replace some plastic in the bottled water market and moves away from plastic straws and stirrers ahead of the forthcoming ban in England in 2020.
"But overall, the proportion of plastic packaging seen on most supermarket shelves, and the amount collected as waste and reported to the Environment Agency, has not altered significantly."
The research found: "Worryingly, our interviewees indicated that not all the changes made have been assessed properly for environmental impact and some decisions have been taken knowing it could actually increase some environmental burdens."
One supermarket representative said: "We are aware that [by switching from plastic to other materials] we may, in some cases, be increasing our carbon footprint."
Another added that opportunities for 'baseless greenwashing are rife' suggesting: "One of the challenges that we have as a retailer is that there is no agreed methodology for assessing the impacts of materials."
The report suggests: "We would like to see people working together to come up with a consistent methodology that would stop any sort of misleading claims to consumers."
"One repeated concern by the businesses we spoke to was around the use of bio-based and compostable material for packaging.
"A Grocer survey of more than 1,000 individuals in 2019 found that consumers think that plant-based compostables are the most environmentally friendly packaging materials, ahead of paper, glass, cardboard, conventional plastic and aluminium, in that order
"But the retailers and brands we interviewed were wary about replacing conventional plastic with these novel plastics in their packaging.
"Some of this came down to cost, with one supermarket representative suggesting: 'It’s difficult to see how that can get to a realistic cost position'."
The study found: "One reason for the slow pace of change on the public’s part, meanwhile, could be that single use packaging - and plastic in particular - still dominates supermarket shelves.
"According to 2018 and 2019 surveys by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency, UK supermarkets put at least 59 billion items of single use plastic packaging on the market a year.
"Six of the ten biggest plastic packaging producers, revealed that only three per cent of the businesses’ packaging is designed for reuse."
"That works out at nearly 900 pieces of plastic for every person living in the UK.
"What’s more, a recent New Plastics Economy survey of more than 200 global members, including six of the ten biggest plastic packaging producers, revealed that only three per cent of the businesses’ packaging is designed for reuse."
"Several interviewees shared this desire for a more standardised and transparent approach to lifecycle assessments, which could help them make better informed decisions to avoid unintended consequences.
"One respondent called the process 'fairly quick and fairly cut and dry', prompted by a mandate to office managers to 'be more environmentally friendly' which results in 'a kneejerk reaction to exit plastic.
"Another described a change at a prominent festival where several suppliers unsuccessfully tried to dissuade organisers from a simple move to eliminate plastic (but not other single use packaging).
"The same respondent did say, though, that the desire to get rid of plastics in such environments can sometimes lead to 'quite positive discussions' about packaging choices and the environmental consequences of alternative materials and systems."
One supermarket representative said: "There are people who would like us to take plastic out of the soft drinks section and replace it with something else like glass and Tetra paks, which aren’t recycled [in the area)."
The same respondent added: "There is not a lot of joined up thinking going on."
Another noted: "I think there’s a lot of pressure to move to alternatives, which aren’t necessarily better from an environmental and climate impact point of view."
The full report can be found here