Smoke and mirrors
As brand owners fall over themselves to unveil ambitious reusable, recyclable or compostable goals tied to packaging, it is becoming obvious that there is a huge amount of confusion surrounding definitions of packaging materials and management processes.
In the US alone, various definitions of recycling can be counted on several hands, while the understanding of key terms such as recyclable, reusable, compostable, renewable and recycled content – to name just a few – is often questionable.
Products such as cellulose acetate film and other bio-based materials are increasingly being labelled as ‘plastic free’, but as far as I am aware from basic chemistry, most of these still involve a polymerisation process or in the case of cellulose acetate film, plastics derived from a wood feedstock.
So to call something plastics free when it uses cellulose is simply false. The same could be said of PLA lids on cups, for example, which are often sold as compostable yet cannot be placed into a garden compost system.
Is the packaging industry adding to the confusion with the way it talks about bioplastics and bio-based materials? Many of the ‘new’ materials are technically still plastics but are just not oil-derived.
The ‘Plastic Free’ trust mark was launched a while ago and we even saw Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza unveil a ‘Plastic Free’ aisle last year. It has been reported that the biggest problems that consumers had in the Ekoplaza aisle was that they could not understand why some of the (what looked like) plastics products were labelled ‘Plastic Free’.
The campaign behind this movement has arguably resulted in even more consumer confusion and sensationalism. Perhaps the message that they really wanted to communicate was ‘Fossil-Fuel-Free’, or ‘Artificial Polymer Free’.
Unfortunately the term ‘plastic’ has become a catch-all, rendering the term ‘Plastic Free’ as largely non-sensical. A similar fate befalls plastics when it comes to the word ‘single-use’, which was recently named the word of the year for 2018 by the British Collins Dictionary.
Seen by consumers – thanks to the mainstream media – as the scourge of the earth, single-use packaging (largely deemed to be plastics) is effectively a misnomer. Recycled PET bottles are single-use unless they are recycled. Compostable plastics are single-use even if they are properly composted.
In any walk of life, single-use is potentially a waste of resources unless the material is dealt with properly. A friend recently posted a celebratory message online that potato chip (crisp) packets were now compostable and she could dispose of them confident that they would degrade unlike traditional packets.
This was a response to UK-based crisp brand Two Farmers launching compostable packets derived from eucalyptus pulp. Forgetting for a moment that they cost about ten times as much as traditional packets, where exactly will these packets be composted?
Compostable plastics are certified ‘compostable’ under composting conditions, making them just as capable of causing litter, blocking a drain or suffocating an animal as a regular plastics pack. No compostable plastics to date have been proven to break down in the marine environment, and landfills do not offer the right conditions, particularly when it comes to heat, for these materials to break down.
Are consumers being fooled into thinking they are doing the right thing by clever marketing tricks? For leading crisp maker Walkers, the focus has been on developing a recycling scheme for its packets whereby consumers can post them back and they will be recycled into plastics pellets and made into everyday items such as plant pots and benches.
I won’t knock the intentions behind this strategy, but as one delegate at a recent recycling conference said following the launch of a number of similar recycling programmes in the UK: “How many recycled park benches and plant pots do we need?”
But back to cellulose acetate film, which I would argue is not ‘plastic free’ and is, at best, a bioplastic. While it is ‘fossil-free’ in construct, like the majority of bioplastics, the actual fossil fuel requirement to manufacture and ultimately dispose of such materials can actually outweigh that of a traditional plastic such as PE.
What we need at industry level is more converters that will demonstrate a true cradle-to-grave footprint of all materials requested by their customers. This opens the door to more educated decisions, free from buzzwords and media hype.
Origin might be important but it should not draw our attention away from end-of-life. Some of the so-called ‘Plastic Free’ materials are still contaminants in some organic and mechanical waste management processes. Maybe it’s an angle to avoid the argument that the infrastructure is not currently in place to handle such materials, but that argument has limited mileage.
Just last month I heard an interview with a UK-based recycler that claimed to be the only one in the country to separate and collect bioplastics (which ones were not ascertained), but admitted that the company it sends the material to, located on the other side of the country, currently doesn’t have a market for it. The volumes are simply not sufficient to guarantee an end market.
The bioplastics industry has battled for years with the terminology it uses but the media furore over plastics in recent months has only served to create an even more confusing and complex landscape for terminology.
Is a cellulose film a ‘bio-derived plastic’ or a ‘bio-based plastic’, or is it a ‘non-fossil fuel plastic’? Or is it simply a bioplastic? It could feasibly be all of the above but ‘Plastic Free’ it is not.
I would also question what the ‘Plastic Free’ trust mark really provides over the continually improving On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL). From what I have seen of this trust mark, it is largely used to denote non-fossil derived plastics and tends to favour compostable materials. The challenge we have is that consumer-facing language and packaging technology language are by necessity very different.
One example of the confusing, and perhaps misleading, language sometimes used in this field is a video on the A Plastic Planet website, which shows a green meat tray and informs consumers that it will disappear in 12 weeks. Nothing disappears, and in fact most compostable materials will compost or break down only up to 90 per cent.
If industry has difficulty working out the terminology then how can we expect consumers to have a clue? What we don’t need is false promises because ultimately the consumer will lose trust in the solutions available to them. What we need is less smoke and mirrors and more fact and clarity.