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Once upon a time plastic was the new wonder material; modern, versatile, lightweight, clean, cheap, tough, waterproof. It changed the world. In the food and drinks industries, in medicine, and too many others to list, it became indispensable; from toothbrushes to TVs, clothing to aeroplane parts, we took it for granted.

Love affair turned sour

Then the downsides began catching up with us: none of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable. The toxic chemicals in plastic interact with water and leach harmful chemicals into the ground, polluting groundwater reservoirs, threatening wildlife and people. Around 8 million tonnes of plastic waste escapes into our oceans each year; at the present rate of production, there’ll be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.

With David Attenborough urging us to halt plastic use to save ocean ecosystems, and widespread consumer outcry surrounding the global overuse of plastics, FMCG, retail and food companies are now falling over themselves to readdress their packaging strategies. And, naturally, to incorporate any green successes in their PR strategies.

How are brands reacting?

Over 40 businesses, including John Lewis, Tesco, Unilever and Coca-Cola, have made a commitment to The UK Plastics Pact, a ‘trailblazing collaborative initiative’ launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme).

Their intention is to create a circular economy for plastics, bringing together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK governments and NGOs to tackle the scourge of plastic waste.

For its part, Coca-Cola has promised to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for every container it sells by 2030, and aims to manufacture plastic containers with 50% recycled content by the same date.

Unilever has developed a black plastic pigment that can be mechanically detected by sorting machines. By making the pigment available to other brands, an extra 2,500 tonnes of plastic bottles can now potentially be sorted and sent for recycling each year in the UK alone.  

Burger King are taking the plastic toys out of its Junior Meals and offering to melt down unwanted plastic toys for recycling, whilst taking the opportunity to promote the gesture heavily through film and PR.

Plastic Free Christmas

For Christmas, John Lewis and Waitrose are switching to crackers filled with toys made from recyclable materials instead of plastic. John Lewis is reducing the amount of damaging microplastic glitter on its own brand of Christmas wrapping paper, besides removing plastic wrapping from most individual cards. It mightn’t sound like much, but it saves around 8 tonnes of plastic a year.

As every little helps, Tesco Christmas trees, plants and flowers, paper, tags and cards are now plastic free. So are Aldi’s and Marks & Spencer’s. Even BBC TV’s Strictly Come Dancing banned the use of plastic glitter last year; in future the glitter on contestants’ outfits will be strictly environmentally kosher. 

But seriously, by the year 2050, humans will have manufactured 50 billion tons worth of plastic – most of it used just once before being discarded. Only a small proportion of that plastic will be recycled. So encouraging as the above efforts by businesses might sound, the truth is that they’re just a drop in the ocean compared with the size of the plastic problem that faces us.

HEY, YOU! YES, YOU!

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