Written Evidence Submitted by Academics at Manchester Metropolitan University (PW0029)
This submission from academics at Manchester Metropolitan University draws upon two key international research projects focussed on solving the plastic waste problem; TRANSFORM-CE – a €9.6m Interreg NW Europe funded project, and BIO PLASTICS EUROPE – an €8.6m Horizon2020 funded project, alongside wider research on the topic.
What measures should the UK Government take to reduce the production and disposal of single-use plastics in England? Are the measures announced so far, including a ban on certain single-use plastics and a plastic packaging tax, sufficient?
Single-use plastics are currently used extensively throughout the UK and are embedded within multiple industries, including hospitality, cosmetics, food & drink and packaging. The effectiveness of negative reinforcements, such as bans and taxes applied to certain plastic products, are only likely to be effective where suitable, sustainable alternatives are available, accessible and affordable.
As revealed by Horizon 2020 project, BIO PLASTICS EUROPE, bio-based and bio-degradable plastics present a promising alternative to traditional, single-use plastics, as they have the potential to exhibit superior sustainability characteristics. These include being derived from renewable feedstocks, particularly organic household waste and agricultural residues, providing greater potential for alternative waste management strategies, such as composting or anaerobic digestion, and being less harmful to the environment, with reduced inherent carbon emissions and less persistence within ecosystems (Wellenreuther et al., 2020). However, extensive stakeholder engagement activities have revealed several (real and perceived) barriers currently inhibiting their uptake, including (Fletcher et al., in press):
- Lack of consistent terminology and standards.
- Lack of consumer awareness, understanding and trust.
- Need for further testing to establish material performance.
- Lack of regulation to ensure appropriate and safe use and to fact-check any sustainability claims to protect the industry’s reputation.
- Lack of support for business innovation in this area.
Further support and resources are needed to support the growth of the renewable and biodegradable plastics market, including (Fletcher et al., in press):
- Investment to support further material R&D and testing.
- Financial instruments, such as subsidies, to help new materials become established within the market.
- Standardisation and regulation of claims and terminology.
- Public and consumer education initiatives.
This demonstrates that, in addition to penalties applied to the use of traditional single-use plastic, sustainable alternatives must be made available, alongside the provision of support and investment to help businesses to make the transition.
When substituting one group of materials for another, it is important to consider potential secondary impacts, feedback loops and rebound effects. Examples include an increase in food-waste as a result of less effective packaging materials, increased CO2 emissions from the transport of heavier, reusable packaging solutions, such as glass, and the potential for organic materials to contribute to GHGs emissions through the production of methane, if not appropriately processed. As such, it is not enough to simply ban or tax traditional single-use plastics alone, without careful, ongoing assessment of the alternatives that the market will turn to.
In addition to alternative materials, consideration should also be given to how plastics are used, and the other means by which they may avoid becoming problematic ‘waste’. Plastic is a valuable material with many advantageous qualities for specific applications, such as being light weight and durable for parts and products, stability and impermeability for food packaging, as well as being recyclable in many cases.
It is true that plastics can only be mechanically recycled so many times before their quality degrades, requiring the addition of virgin plastic, or the downcycling of the material. However, many single-use plastics are not currently recycled and could instead be used many more times, maximising the value of the material and benefiting local UK communities and the economy. Drawing on Interreg NW Europe funded project, TRANSFORM-CE, we are demonstrating the potential for innovative technologies, additive manufacturing and intrusion-extrusion moulding, to provide a means of locally recycling entire plastic waste streams into valuable new products, which can then be reprocessed several times. To support the wider uptake of localised, circular solutions such as these, greater investment in waste segregation and processing infrastructure in the UK is essential. In order to maximise the value and impact of these investments, it may be advantageous to also reduce the number of different types of plastics permitted for use and in circulation, streamlining waste management processes.
New technological developments are also arising, which may help tackle the plastic waste problem, without the elimination of plastic altogether. Advancements in chemical recycling of plastics are making the closed loop recycling of plastics possible, with solutions for polyethylene and nylon already developed. This means that they are able to be transformed back into their monomers and re-polymerised into plastics of equal quality to virgin. The ability to manufacture plastics, identical to their traditional counterparts, from bio-based resources may also contribute to the overall sustainability and circularity of plastics, as the industry moves away from non-renewable, petroleum resources (Hatti-Kaul et al., 2020).
This demonstrates the need to explore a wide range of solutions to the plastic pollution problem and ensure that these are then matched appropriately to different applications and industries. The knock-on effects of any interventions should be carefully researched and monitored in an ongoing capacity, so that the necessary information, support and funding can be made available to support positive steps in the right direction, avoiding the substitution of one problem with another.
A further consideration when applying interventions, such as taxes and bans, is who these will impact upon, and whether these individuals have the agency to affect change. For instance, producers may make the switch to bio-degradable plastics, however, without the necessary consumer education, regulation and waste handling infrastructure (e.g., separate receptacles and industrial composting centres), these could end up causing further environmental problems down the line (e.g., methane production from anaerobic digestion in landfills) or contamination of existing recycling processes for traditional plastics. As such, all stakeholders in the value chain must be considered and consulted to ensure that the interventions applied have the desired effect.
How should alternatives to plastic consumption be identified and supported, without resorting to more environmentally damaging options?
Sufficient research should be conducted to assess suitable alternatives to plastic consumption prior to their release onto the market and promotion as a solution. Our project, BIO PLASTICS EUROPE, provides a useful example of the necessary steps to be taken. These include (Fletcher et al., in press):
- Testing of new bio-based and biodegradable plastics in terms of technical performance and environmental impact in line with international norms and standards. Alongside continued assessment of international norms and standards to ensure appropriateness and applicability to new materials.
- Evaluation of existing waste management systems to understand the current proficiency at which bio-based and biodegradable plastics are collected, sorted/segregated, and managed (recycled, composted, etc.), thereby identifying future need for investment.
- Development of a ‘Safety Protocol’ (signposting tool that aids companies to understand their public and environmental safety obligations when they are considering bringing a new bio-based and/or biodegradable plastic product to the market) and the creation of a ‘Sustainability Framework for Biodegradable Plastics’, both co-created with input from relevant stakeholders across the value chain.
- Environmental life cycle assessment and Life Cycle Cost analysis of bio-based and biodegradable plastic materials from cradle to grave, considering different feedstocks and end-of-life management strategies.
- Development of new circular business models to promote the uptake of bio-based and/or biodegradable plastics.
- Extensive, coherent, and consistent communication and dissemination across various levels of society (i.e., researchers, industry, retailers, end users, consumers, etc.), creating opportunities for stakeholder and interested parties to engage and contribute.
1. Wellenreuther, C. and Wolf, A. 2020 Innovative feedstocks in biodegradable bio-based plastics: a literature review. HWWI Research Paper 194. Access at https://bioplasticseurope.eu/downloads/scientific-publications
2. Fletcher, C. A., Niemenoja, K., Hunt, R., Adams, J., Dempsey, A. and Banks, C. E. 2021 Addressing stakeholder concerns regarding the effective use of bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Resources SI: Bioeconomy, Energy, Logistics, Environmental Issues and Sustainable Resource Management (In Press)
3. Hatti-Kaul, R., Nilsson, L., Zhang, B., Rehnberg, N. & Lundmark, S., 2020. Designing Biobased Recyclable Polymers for Plastics. Trends in Biotechnology, 38(1), pp.50-67.
4. Green Alliance, 2019. Building a Circular Economy: How a new approach to infrastructure can put an end to waste. London: Green Alliance.