Plastics and the Government’s Environment Plan

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Plastic bags grabbed the headlines on the recent release of the government’s Environment Plan (“A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment”), and have also generated public attention, after a Blue Planet 2 screening at the end of 2017 demonstrating some of the impacts of plastic on the ocean and its wildlife. The plan has called for zero ‘avoidable’ plastic by 2042 and promised to reduce contamination of the sea and fresh water by plastic and its by-products. These are of course laudable aims, despite some criticism of the 25-year timeline to meet some targets.

Most of the press attention centred on potential policy solutions for the problems, in particular charges for disposable coffee cups and extension of the plastic bag tax. Other policy possibilities are a plan to call for evidence on tax solutions to reduce single use plastic waste, working with industry to improve plastic recycling, and plastic free aisles in supermarkets.

IFST supports the ambitions to limit the impact of plastics to the environment, and the sound mantra of “reduce, reuse and recycle”. However, it is important that the specific solutions applied to each of these areas are science and evidence driven, and based on robust life cycle assessments that consider the environmental impacts of concern. Then we can appropriately compare the environmental costs and benefits of various plastics and materials we use.

In the food context, plastic also has a use as packaging to protect food products from damage and spoilage. IFST recognised the value of packaging to reduce food waste in its 2017 sustainability focussed “Food System Framework” document, and is engaged with WRAP as a signatory to their Courtauld Agreement, to support food waste reduction. Within the Framework, IFST also highlighted the need for new packaging innovations to further this aim. In addition to waste reduction, innovation should also focus on minimising environmental impacts from the production and disposal of packaging, in terms of greenhouse gases and harm to the planet’s ecosystem.

The government’s plan also includes goals to reduce (by 20%) per capita food waste and greenhouse gas emissions from the food supply chain, by 2025. This makes it particularly relevant to view the food system environmental impacts and solutions in the broader sustainability context. The Environment Plan picks up some of these elements, for example, soil health, water efficiency and efficient fertiliser and pesticide use. Even if they don’t make the headlines, it is good to see these included. While the plan could be more comprehensive, there is crossover with the government’s Industrial Strategy programme “Transforming food production: from farm to fork” and the Clean Growth Strategy. IFST, for one, will continue to monitor the impact these have on progress towards a truly sustainable food system.