Does the UK Plastics Pact go far enough?

The UK Plastics Pact launched on Thursday.

More than 40 major retailers and supermarket chains have signed up to a new UK Plastics Pact vowing to cut plastic packaging by 2025.

The pact says that, by 2025, those signed up will:

  • Make 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • Ensure all plastic packaging contains an average of 30% recycled content
  • Ensure 70% of their plastic packaging is effectively recycled or composted

Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose, Aldi, and Lidi are among those to sign up so far, as well as the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation.

But critics say the pact - which is voluntary - carries little weight, with no way of enforcing the promises.

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Waste reduction body Wrap, which is leading the UK Plastics Pact, said the businesses involved are responsible for more than 80% of the plastic packaging on products sold through British supermarkets.

Chief executive Marcus Gover said it was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to "rethink and reshape the future of plastic so that we retain its value, and curtail the damage plastic waste wreaks on our planet."

He added: “This requires a wholescale transformation of the plastics system and can only be achieved by bringing together all links in the chain under a shared commitment to act.

“That is what makes the UK Plastics Pact unique. It unites every body, business and organisation with a will to act on plastic pollution."

But the pact only targets “problematic or unnecessary” plastic packaging - and campaign group A Plastic Planet claimed it was a way of keeping plastic packaging in the system, instead of working to find alternatives.

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Co-founder Sian Sutherland called the pact “a step forward”, but warned of its limitations - one of which is the focus on recycling.

Plastic can only be recycled a handful of times before becoming useless, meaning recycling targets may only slow the tide, rather than stop it.

Noticeably, supermarket Iceland has not signed up to the pact.

It announced back in January plans to eliminate all plastic packaging on its own-brand products within the next five years.

Managing director Richard Walker said he supported the pact, but said Iceland’s ambitions were “more far-reaching” - and said he wanted to focus the firm’s resources on delivering their own promise.

The pact targets 'problematic or unnecessary' plastic packaging. Credit: ITV Central

All this week, ITV Central has been investigating the problem of plastic pollution.

We've examined the damage it is causing our countryside and wildlife, and have goe behind the scenes at two of the region's biggest waste disposal companies to find out what happens to plastic which is thrown away.

I was told of the huge challenges for the industry in dealing with plastic - often something can be marked as 'recyclable' because, in a lab setting, it is possible.

But in practice, it's not always that easy - meaning it's best to look out for the 'widely recycled' marker.

Items like black plastic are almost impossible for machines to pick out against the black conveyor belts - and with so many different kinds of plastic on the market, if something isn't properly labelled, it can't be recycled as it can't be properly handled.

The waste hierarchy. Credit: Defra

The waste hierarchy, as it is known, is ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ - with ‘recovery’, ie making use of any waste which cannot be reused or recycled, the fourth option and ‘disposal’ the last resort.

Focusing on recycling is a key, and very welcome, initiative.

But it only comes in halfway down the hierarchy - leaving a lot of room for improvement above that.

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