Can we turn the tide of plastic packaging?

FT Rethink

Can we turn the tide of plastic packaging?

COVID-19 has disrupted 2020 and, in some ways, it has taken centre stage. This unexpected medical emergency has greatly contributed to the loss of lives and set off deep economic recessions around the world. But it has also created an opportunity to build back better. We have seen recovery funds focused on green new deals, calls to move away from fossil fuels and concrete actions being taken to confront plastic pollution.

Plastic accounts for 80% of all our ocean pollution1. It pollutes our rivers and oceans and threatens wildlife and the environment. Yet, tackling the issue has consistently remained on the global agenda. Two years after the UN declared plastic pollution a global crisis, cities and countries are introducing bans on single-use plastics. Most recently, the Netherlands announced one such ban earlier this year, which will come into effect in July 2021. This demonstrates that action on this issue is continuing in spite of parallel efforts to contain the pandemic. Businesses are taking measures to reduce their plastic waste, and companies are developing sustainable alternatives to plastic such as biodegradable packaging.

…action on [the plastic pollution] issue is continuing in spite of parallel efforts to contain the pandemic

 

 

The same can be said of plastic bags. Taking up to 20 years2 to degrade under water, plastic bags are the most visible form of plastic pollution. “It is estimated that 1 to 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year - almost 10 million plastic bags per minute”, writes the UN Environment. Yet, action is underway. In 2018, 127 countries3 around the world introduced restrictions on single-use plastic shopping bags that were previously given for free. And in the UK, the 5p plastic bag charge, introduced in 2015, has been an extremely effective policy as sales fell by 90% in 2019 alone. A societal shift has certainly begun.

Taking up to 20 years to degrade under water, plastic bags are the most visible form of plastic pollution. Yet, action is underway

The coronavirus did, however, cause a spike in plastic consumption with a high demand for protective gear, disposable packaging and e-commerce products. Whilst plastic plays a key role in protecting the virus from spreading, the rise in its consumption may have long-term impact on the planet.


A difficult trade-off

Plastic is lightweight, hygienic, and affordable. It also has a low carbon footprint4. Yet, its overuse, production and the mismanagement of its waste massively pollutes our oceans and landfills. Since the early 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced of which only 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% dropped in landfills or in the environment5.

Finding and investing in alternatives is vital. And we need to move quickly

And while the coronavirus-induced collapse in oil demand might be good news for consumers at the petrol pump, it isn’t for plastic recycling. Today, 99% of the plastic produced relies on oil, natural gas and coal6. Therefore, when oil prices plummet, so does the cost of making virgin plastic, making it cheaper and more accessible than recycled plastic.

Finding and investing in alternatives is vital. And we need to move quickly.

Watch our Financial Times video with Anna Gross taking a closer look at some of the more innovative solutions available to transition to a circular, clean and lean economy.

1 https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastics
2 https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics#how-long-does-it-take-plastics-to-break-down
3 Single-Use Plastics (UNEP, 2018)
4 Life cycle assessment of grocery carrier bags by Danish Environmental Protection Agency (2018)
5 https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25523/singleUsePlastic_sustainability_factsheet_EN.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
6 https://www.dw.com/en/plastic-oil-petrochemicals-coronavirus/a-52834661

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