In recent weeks two parliamentary reports have illustrated the resistance in certain sectors to radical changes to the UK’s policies for managing wastes and resources. As they compel change and involve reallocation of financial resources and responsibilities, this was to be expected. Inertia, having to adhere to externally imposed targets and the risk of stranded assets are a powerful force.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee highlighted that many local authorities argue against food waste collections, against consistency in packaging collections and against government-mandated targets. Local authorities want government money to finance transition but do not want government to control how they spend that money.
Meanwhile, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on plastic food and drink packaging has shown how there is an attempt to stop the introduction of compostable plastics in certain uses, totally overlooking that compostable plastics are instrumental in improving food waste quality and the quantity intercepted.
Yet we all know that the current waste and resource management systems are totally broken. Defra has itself said so. Recycling markets have said so. Litter throughout our towns and countryside say so. Our plastic and WEEE waste dumped in Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Vietnam say so. Our exports of three million tonnes a year of RDF say so. Our falling recycling rates say so. Our soils and waters full of plastics say so. Despite this many don’t want change. They prefer to fiddle around the edges while watching our planet burn and pollution from waste invade every corner of the globe.
We have never argued that compostables are a substitute for most plastic packaging. If you read our responses to Defra’s resources and waste consultations, we suggest compostables are useful where they can:
- Help intercept and improve food waste collections, recalling that EU law (and Defra commitments) mean we will all have food waste collections by 2023;
- Reduce some packaging waste from plastics that currently cannot be recycled and will not be in the future, especially when stuck to food; and
- Get food waste back to soil without plastic contamination.
We forget, soil is receiving plastic waste at a higher rate than oceans. Clearly the EFRA committee has not read this report, sent to them some months ago.
People who criticise compostable packaging do not understand its role. It is a niche role, but significant in helping solve issues around food and soil. These are critical issues for production of food, 95 per cent of which is produced on soil. Compostables are no solution for littering, although research has shown they can break down in marine and soil environments too, even if they are not designed to.
Sadly, people look at materials, not at their use. But those who state that we should continue to use plastics even where they are contaminating food waste collections and organic matter going to soil either miss the point or are defending their interests. That is unsustainable and is a dramatic failure of vision as we work towards both a circular economy and a bioeconomy as central pillars of government policy.
David Newman, BBIA Managing Director