The Big Plastic Debate

Posted: 23rd July 2018


By: Haulwen Nicholas

The Big Plastic Debate

If any of you produce a product that needs packaging I imagine you’re not sure what solution is best. Just as if you’re a consumer, I imagine you’re not sure what’s good and what’s bad packaging.

Based on what is being said in the press, I see many small businesses switching from plastic into other materials, not realising that the material they’ve just moved to is actually more harmful to the environment than the plastic they were originally using. I’ve seen many consumers making the switch and sit there with my head in my hands as they make choices which are causing more harm. Thought it’s not their fault.

It’s so difficult to know what is the right solution. I have a degree in Environmental Biology and have spent 18 years working within the packaging industry, primarily focused on reducing packaging. I spent 2 years working for WRAP (the waste resource action programme) and I really have to dig deep to find the truth.

The current focus is primarily on plastic packaging though plastic is used for many things in our world and has saved the lives of millions of people. Equally we use plastic for things that really aren’t needed, ornaments for the garden are a particular pet hate of mine! (Sorry, if you make these! nothing personal!)

And this is the problem – I speak to people going plastic free, removing their packaging at the tills, packaging that is designed to extend shelf life and protect the food from damage, to reduce the millions of tonnes of food waste produced in the western world. Yet as I’m speaking to them they’re buying a plastic ornament for the garden or tapping into their plastic mobile phone. When I challenge people they don’t even realise what they are doing, but will often say ” oh I don’t mean that plastic”.


Now don’t get me wrong,  I’m very passionate about all thing to do with protecting our natural world, I agree plastic in nature is an issue and it’s an oil based product with lots of questions around its manufacture. But so are all the other materials;

I could write a book on this but I’ll try and keep it brief and only focus on packaging;

Plastic packaging is in certain circumstances the best packaging and has the lowest carbon impact than other materials.

According to the recent article in New Scientist Magazine – Climate Change and loss of habitats and biodiversity are the biggest threats to our planet. However, I know of a number of international meetings where both these topics have been taken off the agenda to focus on plastic. These knee-jerk reactions are going to cause a bigger long-term issue and legacy to our planet and future generations and I really want everyone to stop and actually look at this and remove the emotion.

So first we need to consider how we’ve got here.

As we’ve moved away from the land, with the industrial revolution into factories and large habitations we’ve had to find a way to get food to these people. Packaging isn’t a new thing – we now use our waste from the past to determine our history. How many archaeological digs are around the “middens” or landfill sites of the past.

In the past that is how we dealt with waste, we dug a hole in the ground, we burnt it on the fire and we threw it into lakes, stream, rivers and the sea. My dad is 72 years old and he remembers that they used to throw the glass bottles and metal cans in the stream. There were no waste collections in those days.

Even in my childhood, when I visited my relatives in the West Midlands, people dumped waste on the green, the rag and bone man would take anything of value (with his horse and cart, I am only 44 honest), and the rest was dumped in the canal. A lot of waste went into our environment when we had the bin strikes in the 70’s.

We have to remember a lot of countries still operate like this. Which is why the majority of ocean plastic come from countries like India, China etc. (Source the Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

Plastic became the leading material of choice in the 1970’s and has increased since then. However, a lot of work has been done to reduce plastic packaging already. Having worked in the packaging industry for over 18 years I’ve never worked for any brand or retailer who wants to pay for packaging, my focus has always been on reducing packaging – mainly for cost reasons.

When I worked at WRAP (The Waste Resource Action Programme), we used this as our driver to get reductions i.e. it saves money.

Equally, when I was at WRAP we did on occasions increase packaging. This was to reduce product damage. In most cases, there is more embedded carbon, water and other resources used in the growing, manufacture and processing of the product than there is in the packaging. We have to put things in perspective.

I see many people saying we should return to shopping locally and go back to the old ways. We can’t, we have to look at a new way of doing things not look to the past, though we can take learning. We have to remember the population of the world was much smaller, women predominately stayed at home with the children and were able to go out and buy fresh products every day from the local baker, butcher, greengrocer, etc. And we all had more time to grow our produce even our own pigs for slaughter in our backyards. Now hygiene, animal welfare, legislation, lack of space, time and increase in population prevent much of this from happening.

We want convenience, we want choice and we need things to be easy for us.

Those of you reading this article are people who care, who will want to make these changes but many don’t want to. Yes, survey them in the street and they’ll say they recycle, they don’t want plastic and they want animal welfare. They’ll say they’ll pay more for these things, but in reality, they walk into the shop and purchase the cheapest thing. Brands and retailers should take the hit, they make massive profits, I hear you say. In reality, they exist only to make a profit, to give people jobs and salaries and to pay their shareholders. Just as you as small business owners are there to make a living so that you can be successful. So it’s not as simple as that. (I wish it were).

I saw a comment the other day, in one of the packaging groups I’m in saying that retailers should stop selling this stuff. Well, if one stop selling it, an individual will just go and buy it from elsewhere.

We need a total solution, from the individual, through retailers, brands, waste providers, government etc. But we need to take time and make responsible decisions.

One of the reasons many items have moved to plastic is due to environmental legislation and voluntary agreements led by government-funded organisations. The packaging waste regulations have been in place for about 18 years now, and there are fines for over packaging, though there are few people in trading standards to enforce it. Everyone who is operating at a certain turnover or puts a certain tonnage of packaging into the market have to show compliance on an annual basis. It’s basically a tax on the weight of your packaging. Hence, the move from glass to plastic and metal to plastic to reduce this tax burden on the retailers and brands. The Courtauld Commitments that were run by WRAP were initially focused on packaging weight, so again the move was made to lightweight, often to plastic options. They realised this was not taking into account product and food waste and the packaging reductions were increasing damages, so the focus moved to CO2. Hence, plastic was still seen as a favourable material. Another focus is on water usage and again plastics use less of this than many other materials.

Many people want a move back to glass – yet it is not a solution;

Moving from glass bottles to plastic bottles has taken millions of truck journeys off the road – improving air quality and reducing carbon impact.

Glass is a high energy material to make so has a high carbon footprint.

Glass uses raw materials that need to be quarried from the earth, resulting in loss of habitats and resources.

Glass causes major issues in the environment. Injuring animals, starting wildfires etc. How many of you look for sea glass on beaches, its pretty isn’t it, but it’s still a problem for turtles crawling up beaches and seals and other animals who can get cut by it.

When I was on holiday, 1 beach had signs on it to watch out for glass.

People who throw plastic bottles into nature will throw glass bottles. All we do is change the material. I saw lots of broken glass bottles and metal cans dumped in the environment on my holiday and on the street where I live its primarily glass and metal containers that are dumped on the street.

We used to segregate glass by colour, and although much glass still gets recycled into glass bottles again, some is lost and put into infill for roads as its mixed colours which can’t be sorted.

In the UK we primarily make clear glass, yet most of the recycled glass is often green because of wine bottles so can’t be recycled back into glass bottles in the UK as easily as clear glass.

Aluminium is made from minerals from the earth, one being bauxite, again there is a loss of habitat and resources, pollution into rivers and questionable practices around people working in these mines. Not all of them, but some.

Paper seems the best option, doesn’t it? Well currently there is much debate going on about the lack of biodiversity in some of these forests and whether the trees grown for paper production are growing long enough to absorb enough Co2 to make a difference. There have been issues around pollution and destruction of indigenous habitats to grow fast growing trees for paper and board production. Many western paper mills no longer use chlorine in their process but in other places of the world, they still do.

Surely, all of these biodegradable options are the answer. Firstly the conditions in landfill sites aren’t conducive to degradation. In America, they dug up a landfill site and found 50-year-old newspapers that you could still read and guacamole which hadn’t degraded. The degradation criteria in the natural environment change on a daily basis, temperature, humidity etc and it’s different in a river, than the sea or land. Equally, I really don’t think we should be developing packaging to degrade in nature, we need to be developing packaging that can be reused and recycled over and over again to reduce resource usage.

Some materials sound great – where we grow crops such as bamboo or other materials to replace man-made materials. However, the processing needed to convert these materials is intense, with lots of chemicals being used, also indigenous forests are being destroyed to plant this crop thus reducing habitats and biodiversity. We also do not really understand what microfibres of these materials will do in the environment. They may start off as a natural material but to make them a workable item they are in effect man-made materials which you would never find nature.

The other thing to be aware of too is that many of these plastic free aisles you keep hearing about the products are delivered in plastic packaging to the store in the 1st place. So check what are they doing with the back of store packaging and what are their food or product waste levels like.

The purpose of packaging is to – protect, preserve, contain, inform, provide legal information, sell, transport, etc. Its there for a reason – I see very few food items over packaged, if it has packaging which seems a lot, it’s often to increase shelf life. There are of course still some luxury items which are still overpackaged and multipacks are currently up for debate. I do see lots of cosmetics and personal care items, toys, gifts etc over packaged.

I could go on, but don’t want to make you all depressed!

Each of you can do something. Instead of going plastic-free become mindful of what you are purchasing and consuming. Developing packaging for your product, question is it needed and how will it be disposed of at end of life.

I have a couple of courses I’ve devised for small businesses like yourselves which can be found in my packaging academy (Use discount code WIRE18 for special rates for WIRE members)

So here are some of my tips;

Stop and think – do you really need that item? – can you have water instead of fizzy drinks? Flavour it with herbs by making a pot with herbs and hot water and then letting it cool and add some ice cubes (though do we really need ice cubes!!) I like rosemary, lemon balm and mint.

How will you dispose of it at end of life?

What else could I use instead?

I’ve used white vinegar & lemon juice for cleaning for years and mixes with my own essential oils.

Focus on experiences instead of stuff.

Clothing – if its cheap there’s a reason. Make investment purchases with clothing and shoes and repair them.

Think about every item you purchase and what process has been used to make it, how many people have been involved. I’ve always fancied the idea of doing a film credit for all the people involved in getting a product to market. It would be as long as the film credits.

Purchase stuff you can reuse, or can repair. Purchase packaging with recycled content (they always advertise this), this then creates a demand.

Recycle as much as possible. Did you know a lot of the thin film plastic such as bread bags and cereal bags within the boxes, can go into the carrier bag recycling facilities at supermarkets? give great advice on what you can and can’t recycle.

Get gloves and a litter picker and take ownership of the pavement, road around the perimeter of your home. If you have elderly or impaired neighbours do their perimeter too. Get your workplace to do the same. Encourage your friends and neighbours to do it too.

I hope I haven’t disheartened you too much, but I just want you to think. This is very much an overview and summary and I could write for weeks on this and other environmental topics.

The media and consumer pressure to go plastic free is making some bad decisions happen, some good ones, but many bad ones. I know many of the packaging teams in all the major UK retailers & brands, all this anti-plastic rhetoric has stopped them working on the projects to make lasting environmental improvements. They’re frustrated at being forced by their MD’s and CEO’s to change the packaging to an alternative without the right data behind the choice and/or are known to have a worse overall environmental impact.  We need to stop reflect and make long-term decisions. We need to consume less.

Thanks for getting all the way through and I hope its useful. I can honestly say I’ve only skimmed the surface, there’s a lot more to it than this.

Yes plastic is a problem, yes we do need to clean up our seas, but we need to clean them of all materials – plastic, glass, metal, paper, chemicals, sewage, toxins etc,

We’ve got a long way to go, our small steps can help, but we still need to educate all those people who leave their rubbish in nature.

Haulwen Nicholas

The Packaging Oracle

Haulwen runs a portfolio business called Haulwen Ltd which helps people to create a better future. This includes;

The Packaging Oracle where she runs a packaging academy to train people on packaging and she gives consultancy and advice to businesses of all sizes.

The Mojo Coach where she runs her Mojo Academy which helps women to create their own future by supporting them on a path of self-discovery, self-development and self-care.

Haulwen is an Ambassador for Psychologies Magazines where she does regular blog posts for their subscribers on coaching and environmental issues.

In 2017 she won the prestigious award for Outstanding Contribution to the Packaging industry for her work on packaging education.

She lives on the Welsh/Shropshire borders with her husband and in her spare time reads, gardens, loves photography, being in nature and writes children’s fiction.