Tackling plastic pollution – my observations following the Recoup Conference

2 October 2019

I was in a very positive mood when I came away from the recent annual Recoup conference. The quality of the debate and the wide range of roles and interests of those taking part really impressed me. As did the excellent turnout and the rigorous chairmanship of broadcaster Tom Heap. A colleague who’d also attended spoke of her optimism at the energy and participation from the audience, challenging the speakers in a constructive way. On the way home, I browsed Twitter to see if social media was sharing our views. I’m pleased to report that tweets from other participants were also very positive.

KM Packaging said that it was a ‘powerful opening speech by RECOUP CEO Stuart Foster, referring to this “exceptional” year for plastics’, and that resources and waste management was the new normal.

INCPEN CEO Paul Vanston noted a comment from Friends of the Earth’s Julian Kirby, who said that 'doing plastics better IS reducing plastic impacts'. What Paul liked about Julian's thinking was his advocacy that decisions have to be science-based to inform what options and materials are best at the time... though things evolve.

The Greater Cambridge area’s shared waste service said that it was ‘great to hear global companies like Unilever talk about the circular economy, shampoo bars and the recyclability of black plastics.’

Chemical recyclers Plastic Energy said, ‘Collaboration across the value chain will be essential to solve the plastic waste issue.’

In WRAP, we take the view that you do need to tackle to whole system, with everyone playing their part to transform the entire sector. That’s producers, designers, manufacturers, retailers and brands, local authorities, citizens and reprocessors.

That’s why WRAP set up The UK Plastics Pact in April 2018, bringing together the UK plastic packaging supply chain to tackle the problem of plastic pollution, transform the plastics system and create a circular economy for plastics in the UK.

The Pact is moving fast. We have a roadmap to 2025. We have set up working groups on the key challenges, collaborating, finding solutions. We will be reporting the baseline for 2018 from members later this year. And members will be publicly reporting their progress too.

I have been delighted that members have agreed a hierarchy for rigid packaging, which is already reducing the number of polymers being used and the best colours to support reprocessing downstream. However, in such a complex economy as ours, we’re unlikely ever to get 100% agreement from all sides on the precise way forward.

In the Pact, we have had to negotiate with a multitude of stakeholders with sometimes competing agendas. We have had to navigate through the whole spectrum of opinions and standpoints. There have been unrealistic expectations from some quarters of what is practical and feasible, and we must constantly guard against knee-jerk reactions.

But if Recoup’s conference showed anything at all it was that a mature approach to plastic itself is essential. As a vital material in our modern society, it cannot be demonised.

The British Plastics Federation tweeted that it was ‘good to see Tom Heap gets the danger of the unintended consequences of plasti-phobia and the importance of a circular economy for plastics.’

Both the BPF and BBC broadcaster Tom Heap, who chaired the panel I was on, are right on this.

There must be a balanced debate that recognises that plastic packaging plays an important and critical role in protecting goods as they move through our economy. Keeping this plastic out of the environment is now critical. 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. Piecemeal solutions caused a lot of the problems in the first place. Only by bringing the whole sector together can we deliver the systemic change we need.