What a start to 2018! Talk about fireworks. There were none so loud as the news that China had put its foot down and finally banned plastic imports, forcing the recycling industry to look for markets elsewhere, and some government ministers left navel-gazing wondering how they hadn’t seen this coming.
The waste sector had seen the writing on the wall though, five years ago, in 2013, when China toughened its controls to reject low-quality plastic, leading to calls from plastics experts in the UK for our own Government to legislate to improve the quality of plastics recycling.
China’s decision has now forced a heavy rethink and on the back of campaigns such as Sky’s Ocean Rescue and the awareness-raising of Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II – both revealing the impact of plastic pollution – January has opened 2018 as possibly the year of plastic promise.
Already the year has kicked off with the Government’s 25-Year Environmental Plan, where the Prime Minister announced the Government’s strategy to extend England’s plastic bag charge to all retailers, including independent shops.
The Government will also explore extending the tax to other single-use plastic packaging and encourage supermarkets to create plastic-free aisles.
And we need the Government to toughen up on supermarkets, whose voluntary action can often be viewed as questionable.
Take Marks and Spencer for instance, who, despite making inroads with their ‘Plan A’ sustainability agenda, hit the headlines this month with their Cauliflower Steak – a couple of cauliflower slices packaged in a plastic tray.
Thankfully Marks and Spencer have now withdrawn this product after much public ridicule.
I hope that whoever came up with the idea in the first place has been awarded the wooden spoon of unnecessary product development.
The Cauliflower Steak debacle was disappointing, especially following the inroads that supermarkets have made over the years to shrink their plastic use on many product lines.
The incident also highlights how packaging designers can’t hide their bad decisions any more, not under the watchful eye of an increasingly concerned public, where one tweet can go viral on social media and make national news.
But supermarket stories haven’t all been bad news.
Take Iceland for instance, who just over a week ago announced its ‘Too Cool For Plastic’ strategy, aiming to rid its stores of plastic packaging on own-brand products by 2023.
Waitrose has also declared that it will replace all black plastic trays by the end of 2019.
The supermarket has also promised to make all its packaging widely recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Other steps include the removal of plastic straws from its product lines by the end of the year.
Other news on the war against plastic straws sees Asian food chain Wagamama banning plastic straws throughout all of its restaurants, with steps to switch to paper straws, which will be provided upon request.
And it’s not just national chains that are making the steps. Look more closely around Suffolk and you’ll see independents taking action, too – for instance, the Oakes Barn pub in Bury St Edmunds, which has joined the Straw Wars campaign, switching to biodegradable straws, which are available to customers who ask for one.
Such a flurry of action has been welcome as we tackle the need to wean ourselves off our plastic habit.
Where used responsibly, plastic has the benefit of reducing waste – ie food waste – but all too often this material has been taken for granted for the sake of convenience.
And we see it everywhere, bags clinging to trees and bottles thrown in ditches.
But we can do something about this, too, as seen this week by BBC Radio Suffolk’s launch of Planet Suffolk, a campaign led by broadcaster Mark Murphy to make Suffolk cleaner and greener.
Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s cleaning up or greening up our plastic problem, please join the Planet Suffolk debate and share your news.