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Plastic alternatives? Choose carefully…

With forthcoming bans on some single-use plastics and businesses rapidly jumping ship to new materials, it is important to choose alternatives carefully to avoid unintended consequences.

With forthcoming bans on some single-use plastics and businesses rapidly jumping ship to new materials, it is important to choose alternatives carefully to avoid unintended consequences. 

Prime Minister Theresa May has announced plans to launch a consultation later this year to ban a range of single-use plastics, which could spell an end to plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. 

Other forms of plastic packaging are also seemingly on the way out, with a rising number of businesses announcing sweeping reforms to their packaging policies in recent weeks.

There are a number of different pathways open to businesses looking to keep up, taking in recyclability and reusability, recycled content, or newly emerging alternatives such as bioplastics or other biodegradable materials. 

The picture can therefore be quite complex, and any changes to new packaging materials should be thoroughly researched to ensure there are no negative knock-on effects elsewhere. 

Trade-offs and complications

James Murray, editor of BusinessGreen, has pointed out that a ban on plastic straws and stirrers may encourage a switch to paper and wooden alternatives.

“Biomass versions [of single-use plastics] would pose a negligible threat to marine habitats, but their carbon footprint would very much depend on a complex web of variables.

“The simple reality is that if in cracking down on plastics you increase demand for biomass, be it timber for card or paper or corn, sugar cane, or other feedstocks for bioplastics, then there are inevitable land use implications, with associated implications for greenhouse gas emissions, food security, and biodiversity.

'Follow waste hierarchy’

“Businesses and policymakers need to be fully cognisant that across every part of the packaging lifecycle, environmental trade-offs and complications will arise.

“A handy rule of thumb is that this is a scenario where the classic waste hierarchy needs to be applied as fully as possible. Companies need to reduce first, re-use second, and recycle third.”