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Why plastic packaging alternatives may be worse for the environment

Plastic pollution in the environment is a global problem. Compostable and biodegradable plastics seem like the perfect alternatives to plastic, however, new research shows that, currently, these alternatives also pose a number of threats to the environment.

A committee of British Members of Parliament (MPs) has warned that compostable and biodegradable plastics could add to marine pollution because there is currently no infrastructure in place to make sure they break down correctly. Many food and beverage companies, takeaway coffee venues, cafes and retailers are adopting the use of plastic alternatives. But, while giving evidence to UK MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee, experts said the infrastructure required to deal with this new packaging was not yet in place. 

They also said that there is a lack of consumer understanding of these plastic alternatives. Environmental NGOs told the committee that the rapid introduction of plastic alternatives into the environment could, in fact, increase plastic pollution through litter and illegal dumping.

Most compostable packaging only degrades in industrial composting facilities

A large amount of the compostable packaging produced for the consumer market only degrades in industrial composting facilities. It does not break down in home composting systems. In addition, not all compostable packaging items are sent to the correct facilities that have the right combination of temperature, humidity and microorganisms to decompose this waste.

Green Alliance, an environmental think tank, said there was evidence that the term biodegradable made consumers think it was appropriate to discard certain items into the environment. Doing so would, in fact, make pollution on land and at sea even worse.

“If a biodegradable cup gets into the ocean, it could pose just as much of a problem to marine life as a conventional plastic cup,” says Juliet Phillips from the Environmental Investigation Agency.

“Compostable plastics have been introduced without the correct infrastructure in place. Also lacking is consumer understanding in order to manage compostable waste. We’re concerned that such actions are being taken without the proper consideration of wider environmental consequences, like higher carbon emissions,” says MP Neil Parish.

Fundamental shift away from single-use packaging necessary

In a report on plastic food and drink packaging, the committee said that national governments should focus on reducing the use of plastic packaging instead of replacing it with other materials. According to the report, “reduction is far more important than recycling, and a fundamental shift away from all single-use packaging, plastic or otherwise, is now necessary.”

Libby Peake from Green Alliance said that there was a need for local and international standards to be re-examined. “Some companies are already changing to alternatives which include bio-based and compostable plastics, cartons, paper, or other materials – in ways that will not ultimately prove to be sustainable. One cannot have a complete switchover to bio-based plastics, aluminium, paper or glass, as these all have environmental consequences themselves.”

According to a 2018 United Nations report, disposable, single-use plastics used for packaging food and drink (in particular cigarette butts, plastic caps, plastic drinking bottles, grocery bags, food wrappers, straws, stirrers and plastic lids) are the most common single-use plastics found in the environment.

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