Tackling soft plastics pollution needs more than greenwashes and conflicted political interests

Some UK supermarket schemes meant to tackle the mounting problem of soft plastics pollution are failing to adequately address the issue, a new EIA briefing has found.

In The Great UK Soft Plastics Scandal, we warn that this serious shortcoming, combined with inadequate current Government policy, could result in greenwashing being substituted for meaningful action.

EIA’s research also revealed how a fund set up by some of the world’s largest brands to encourage UK soft plastic recycling has yet to pay out a penny and exposes how, at the heart of Government, an MP paid to chair a packaging industry lobbying group can directly influence a Parliamentary group he also chairs.

The prevalence of soft plastics – which can include products such as plastic carrier bags, bread and cereal bags, cling film, bubble wrap, magazine wrap and shrink wrap (for multi-pack products such as drink containers, tinned food and toilet paper) – is a particularly concerning aspect of the ongoing global plastics crisis.

In 2020, 92 per cent of plastic film packaging placed on the market in the UK was not recycled, accounting for 38 per cent of the 828,000 tonnes of plastic packaging not collected for recycling from households. Whether disposed of or rejected at recycling facilities which cannot recycle them, these soft plastics are likely dumped in landfills or incinerated.

EIA Ocean Campaigner Lauren Weir said: “Plastic over-consumption and pollution are very pressing existential threats to the environment and to human health – and our new briefing strongly indicates that these threats are not being taken seriously enough.

“Focusing on trying to recycle hard-to-recycle soft plastics or the unethical export of plastic waste, on which these schemes are primarily focused, will ultimately allow the harmful status quo to prevail. We simply don’t have the time to indulge in half-hearted efforts.”

UK supermarkets and brands, primary producers and distributors of soft plastic packaging, are seeking new ways to deal with this problematic waste stream in a bid to meet voluntary and regulatory targets.

Soft plastics takeback bin at Tesco (c) EIA

Responding to this, in addition to consumer demand and a current lack of kerbside household collection, many UK supermarkets have introduced in-store soft plastic takeback schemes, with customers encouraged to return soft plastic waste via bins provided.

However, investigations have found that two supermarkets have contracted UK waste reprocessing company Eurokey Recycling Ltd to handle this in-store collected soft plastic waste, which is initially exported to Poland, although the fate of these wastes is ultimately unknown.

With Eurokey Recycling having previously breached regulations in at least two instances and with plans to expand in the UK, more clarification is required as to where and how this waste is being treated; the export of plastic waste from high-income countries such as the UK is an unethical practice resulting in environmental, social and human health harm.

Action against soft plastics is also being claimed by some of the world’s top polluting brands. In May 2021, Mars, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, also privy to the UK Government’s plastic packaging tax and other regulatory obligations, were the initial founders of a joint fund to help incentivise a soft plastics recycling market in the UK.

But these global companies have collectively put a total of just £1m a year into their Flexible Plastic Fund which, according to EIA’s calculations, would pay to tackle only about 10,000 tonnes of soft plastic. This level of funding is disproportionate when compared to the actual volumes of plastic film packaging not currently being collected at the kerbside for recycling – 288,750 tonnes in 2019 and 287,500 in 2020 – and to the current plastic reduction targets of these companies.

Furthermore, the Flexible Plastic Fund has to date yet to pay out a penny.

Research for The Great UK Soft Plastics Scandal further identified a potential conflict of interests at the heart of the UK’s Parliament.

Soft plastics, such as those used to wrap fruit and vegetables, are a concerning aspect of the ongoing global plastics crisis

The UK Flexible Plastic Fund has the support of Mark Pawsey, MP for Rugby and Bulkington, who, since 2020, has had a second job outside of Parliament as a £30,000-a-year Chair of the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) lobby group, which represents the industry to all four UK governments and engages with key Government departments and committees.

The FPA, with Pawsey at its head, takes the position that people, not producers, are responsible for plastic pollution and has been pushing to pause the implementation of UK policies currently being developed, including extended producer responsibility for packaging.

But Pawsey is also Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Packaging Manufacturing Industry, which is also attended by the FPA and which views citizen responsibility to be the key element when it comes to participating in recycling and eliminating littering behaviour.

For instance, during the Government’s Environment Bill debate in January 2021, Pawsey insisted: “It is not the packaging manufacturer that is the polluter – people are.”

EIA approached Pawsey for comment as to whether he considered his twin roles to be a conflict of interest, but his response did not address the question. He did state that when asked by the FPA to take on the role of chair in 2020, he immediately declared this role on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and has drawn attention to it on each occasion he has spoken on matters relating to the sector in Parliament.

However, EIA has found four separate instances where Pawsey spoke of packaging or plastic in Parliament but did not declare this interest.

Weir added: “This raises serious concerns about how industry lobbying may be holding the Government back from taking adequate action over plastic packaging and waste.

“We urgently need appropriate solutions to the problem of dealing with hard-to-recycle soft plastics, plastic over-consumption and plastic pollution and these need to be both effective and transparent.

“What is clear is that these self-regulating measures and current industry and Government investment are nowhere near robust enough to make the necessary impact. The UK Government should provide a timely policy framework that is truly reflective of the plastic crisis we are currently living.

“Other countries are not our dumping ground and prioritising the recycling of hard-to-recycle plastic over eco-design, reduction and reuse is wrong. UK Government policy needs to meaningfully address this by banning plastic waste exports and ensuring a mandated plastic reduction target is in place.”