A sustainable future: how we all need to search our souls to find the solutions – before it’s too late

18 July 2019

Keynote speech delivered by Director of WRAP UK Peter Maddox at the Packaging News Environmental Packaging Summit: London, July 16 2019

I was at my son’s graduation yesterday. It’s always a proud moment for any parent. As your child stands on the threshold of their adult life you can sit there thinking you’ve done your job in preparing them for the future.

But it made also made me reflect on what kind of future this is.

Our reckless plundering of the planet’s resources and our collective failure to meaningfully tackle the damage we are doing to it mean we won’t be thanked by subsequent generations for the future we have bequeathed them unless we act now.

You know the facts:

  • Climate change - The world’s leading climate scientists warned last year there is only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C. Even half a degree beyond will mean the risk of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people
  • Fixing our dysfunctional global food system - If the current food system continues unabated it risks causing significant damage to our planet  generating enough greenhouse gas emissions to heat our climate above this critical 1.5C target
  • The human race is growing - There is an emerging middle class and with it the risk of a rise in consumerism. They will be demanding more food, clothing, energy 
  • And we are running on deficit - Last year Earth Overshoot Day – the day which marks the point at which humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year - was the earliest ever recorded.

So we still have a job to do.

And that’s what drives me at WRAP. 

It’s why we were created. We exist to help build a world where our precious resources are used sustainably. 

We do this by building evidence and galvanising businesses, governments and citizens to make the systemic, scalable changes we need to create this more sustainable world.   

And what we, at WRAP, strive for every day. We have to find a way to live alongside the planet that sustains us. 

Unfortunately, finding the solutions are not always straightforward. 

And nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in tackling plastic pollution. It is perhaps one of the most complex and challenging issues I have ever taken on.

Believe me, at WRAP we all share the same abhorrence at the appalling damage plastic waste is wreaking in our countryside and oceans. 


But why are there no easy answers?

We are trying to reverse a complicated and complex system that has taken decades to evolve and which is woven into the tapestry of our lives – the versatility and durability of the plastics has also been its downfall. 

It’s not plastic which is the problem but what happens to it when it becomes waste.

The debate is emotive – and not all of it helpful. It has led to unrealistic expectations of what is practical and feasible. We have to constantly guard against knee-jerk reactions.

We have had to navigate through the whole spectrum of opinions and standpoints from protectionists to abolitionists. 

We have had to negotiate with a multitude of stakeholders with sometimes competing agendas and with their own significant economic challenges. 

We are determined to avoid piecemeal solutions but bring the whole supply chain together to bring about systemic change. 

We think the only answer is to shift away from the make, use dispose system we are paying the price for, to one which is truly circular. And that’s a significant undertaking. 

Plastic packaging plays an important role in protecting goods as they move through the economy. And importantly in reducing food waste. 

In my opinion, it would be irresponsible if we were tempted to trade more food waste as part of the ‘deal’ in tackling plastic pollution. This in my mind is a gamble too far:

We are hearing arguments that we should revert to other materials.

You would need to reuse a paper bag at least 40 times for its per-use environmental impacts to be equal to or less than that of a typical disposable plastic bag used one time. 

According to an article in World Resources Institute, an organic cotton bag must be reused 20,000 times to produce less of an environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag. That would be like using a cotton bag every day for more than 50 years

So solutions have to avoid unintended consequences. We simply cannot displace the environmental impact elsewhere. 

So, yes, I’m concerned at knee-jerk responses to substitute plastic with other materials. 

I’d like to quote two sentences from a recent excellent Green Alliance blog on the War On Plastics by Libby Peake

She says substitution is worrying is because “it views plastic alone as the problem and not a problem that is inherent in rampant throwaway living”. She adds: “The problem often is that our unnecessary single use culture does not properly value the materials we use.”

Unfortunately, so emotive is the subject that we are in danger of making plastic the pariah of modern life; demonising it to the point where we can no longer tolerate arguments about the valuable role it plays. 

Of course, the public want instant results. In their hearts they want a Utopian plastic-free existence. I wonder, in reality, though how far their heads are ready to embrace this. 

How willing are they ready to go in sacrificing convenience shopping (or whether in our time- precious lives, we can)? 

How much they are willing to pay to absorb some of the cost of seeking more expensive alternatives? 

And are they ready to relinquish the consumerism which is so woven into our psyche? 

That’s the paradox we are tackling with the Pact. 

I really think something bigger is going on here. 

Plastic has become the rallying cry around which we can coalesce. 

But perhaps it isn’t the material which is ultimately to blame. But the way in which it is emblematic of a throwaway lifestyle which is no longer tenable? Our visible badge of shame? 

Perhaps as well as looking to governments and businesses for the answers, we also have to do some collective soul-searching? 

What are we prepared to sacrifice of our consumer, convenience culture to really preserve our planet? It feels greater than weaning ourselves off just plastic……

Given the fervour around the debate, it’s perhaps not surprising that The UK Plastics Pact, led by WRAP, has come in for some criticism:

  • It’s not ambitious and the planet cannot wait for incremental change
  • It’s an excuse for business as usual – a licence to produce more virgin plastic than ever before
  • Recycling is a myth – most plastic is being shipped abroad to countries which don’t have the infrastructure to manage it effectively
  • We can’t see the progress on our supermarket shelves
  • We’ve been accused of being the mouthpiece for the plastic lobby
  • The Pact has been held up as a fig-leaf for the government to avoid legislation

I don’t mind being criticised. Obviously, it’s not easy to take but it does force you to reflect and re-evaluate about what you are doing and why. 

And the external pressure and challenge can be really important in making sure we are maintaining the momentum, challenging and questioning ourselves, and holding ourselves to account. 

If it’s fair, I’ll do something about it.

If not, then it’s a great incentive to reassert why I do what I do.

So, whilst the ambition and vision of The UK Plastics Pact might never be enough for some, I wanted to use this opportunity to reassert what it actually is:

It’s a unique, world-first platform which brings together businesses, governments, and citizens together to work collaboratively on a systemic solution to tackle plastic pollution. 

It is working together to achieve by 2025 ambitious targets which will eliminate problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic and ensure that all plastic packaging in the future will be recyclable, reusable or compostable and, most of this, effectively recycled or composted. 

This aspires to revolutionise the plastic packaging system in a way which keeps it in the economy and out of the environment

This is being underpinned by government policy – there were some genuinely radical proposals in the Resources and Waste Strategy which could transform the landscape for the future. EPR, DRS, consistent collections are all game-changers which are aligned with the Pact’s goals and will help to drive them.

It is systemic – not piecemeal. It brings together all the stakeholders who hold it in their power to implement massive change. 

This means we can tap into their insights and knowledge to come up with solutions which work and avoid unintended consequences. They know the public expect nothing less than radical change.

We never said we could recycle our way out of the problem. 

Using recycling to bring about a circular economy for plastics is essential. Recycling will significantly reduce the need for virgin plastic. All recycling is fundamentally about generating a raw material that can be used in place of new virgin material. Recycling plastics avoids up to 1 tonne of Co2 for every tonne that is recycled. 

But this sits alongside an ambition to harness innovation to look at alternatives, and exploring how we can reduce and reuse where possible

We are challenging retailers and brands to seriously consider where and when they use plastic and where it can be removed altogether or replaced with something else without having detrimental effects on the goods inside.

Importantly, the Pact also engages citizens;

We want to help citizens do the right things. We are supercharging our Recycle Now campaign. Look out for Recycle Week in September, I know it will the best yet. 

There is a responsibility here on industry and government to make things as easy as possible. There are some exciting things being trialled out there:

Well done, for example, for the Waitrose refill/reuse trial in their Oxford supermarket. It has won many column inches as a positive way of reducing our plastic footprint. I am sure we are looking forward to the results. 

I am keen to see whether time-poor parents remember to pack their containers? Whether shoppers will happily queue to avoid traditional packaging – or just grab a packet of breakfast cereal from a neighbouring aisle? And will it go mainstream?

What do citizens want to see? You might be interested to learn of some major consumer research published today from WRAP and INCPEN. 

In one of the largest public surveys ever into attitudes on food waste & packaging, it revealed that there IS strong support from the British public for packaging which is 100% recyclable and is collected for recycling by all councils wherever they live. A consistent household collection system across the country. 

And, when asked to select up to five food issues that most concern them, food waste ranked way above how it is packaged.

So, this is not the moment to erode public confidence in recycling because – rest assured - if we don’t collect stuff, stuff won’t get recycled. Yes, there are murky corners – even criminal corners - but most of what we collect for recycling in the UK is recycled. Recycling is not failing.

But it does mean that we must get better, we must come up with more efficient recycling systems. We must invest in better infrastructure, especially for plastics, in the UK. The proposed extended producer responsibility regime in the Resources & Waste strategy should go a long way to help.

This also means thinking about why we make and use the materials we do. They have to be genuinely designed to be recycled or reused. 

This is what we are tackling in the Pact. It is a hugely complicated challenge, and we have little time to do it. 

We have set the direction of travel in the Pact. Whilst shoppers might not be aware of it, there are already lots of subtle changes on their supermarket shelves:

  • Black plastic is disappearing
  • Plastic is being removed from fresh fruit and veg
  • Millions more plastic drinks bottles contain increased quantities of recycled content

Just this month we laid down another important milestone – perhaps the most significant so far.

We published a list of eight problematic or unnecessary single-use plastics that Pact members are expected to remove from shelf and stores by the end of 2020. 

And today, I’m pleased to announce the latest.

Our new guidance, launched today, sets out to define which plastics are to be considered genuinely recyclable and give guidance on the ‘best practice’ polymer choices that will allow ‘best practice’ recycling.

By rationalising the number of polymers and their colours used in packaging, we can more easily develop a recycling system that works, and reduce confusion for citizens

In conclusion, I say there cannot be a plastic-free Utopia overnight. Plastic has a huge role to play in a modern society and that isn’t going to change any time soon. Even so, we are all embarking on a sustainability journey with a greater willingness to overcome the challenges. 

Those who’ve signed up to The UK Plastics Pact are contributing their energy, ideas and innovation to find circular solutions that are scalable, practical and realistic – and with an eye on the ultimate goal: keeping plastic in the economy and out of the environment. 

So as I reflect on The UK Plastics Pact, I tell myself that, yes, it is ambitious. We have set the industry a huge challenge to meet the targets. I also tell myself the Pact is barely a year old and yet it has already committed to eliminate certain single use plastic products ahead of any regulatory requirements from Whitehall.  

I will hold the industry to the promises made – the public (and the media) will expect nothing less. So as I reflect on that criticism of the Pact, I tell myself I’m proud of what we have done so far to transform the way we make, use and dispose of plastics. 

I know it’s only the start. But #TogetherWeCan 

Now is the moment to secure a better future for those who will inherit the planet after us, my son, your children and the generations after them.