For many, the all-consuming matter of coronavirus has pushed our environmental problems to the side for the time being. However, these problems aren't going away. In the case of plastics, the current plan is simply not working. A shrewd government would recognise that only by keeping plastic out of soil can we keep plastic out of our food, and out of our bodies, argues Daphna Nissenbaum.

As we approach the end of "plastic-free July", the post-COVID world is set to be far from plastic free.  If anything, single use plastic products have become more popular again, and a new crisis is in prospect as the face masks and plastic gloves wash-up on beaches.

What is less apparent is that plastic is not only being deployed as a barrier between us and coronavirus, nor just as a wrapping around food. In Italy, researchers at the University of Catania have discovered that tiny plastic particles are now actually getting inside our fruit and veg products including lettuce, broccoli, potatoes and pears. Apples and carrots record the highest levels of contamination. Concurrently, a second study by researchers in China and the Netherlands found that microplastics can be absorbed by the roots of lettuce and wheat crops. As Maria Westerbos, founder of the campaign group Plastic Soup Foundation noted, if the plastic is in our vegetables, then it is in everything that eats those vegetables too, meaning it's in our meat and it's in our dairy.

Meanwhile, a BBC investigation recently found that plastic waste from Britain sent to Turkey for recycling is instead being dumped and burned on the side of roads. Plastic bags from Tesco, plastic bottles and plastic packaging from the UK were found by the BBC journalists.  

For anyone that has been campaigning against plastic pollution over the years, the results of this investigation were not surprising, but it once again exposed the critical faults in the UK's current plastic policy. Despite decades of investment in infrastructure and technology in the UK, the overall rate of plastic packaging collected for recycling was just 30% in 2018. Of this, less than half was actually recycled, as much of this plastic was exported to destinations like Turkey (which takes more of the UK's plastic waste than any other nation) where it is not recycled correctly.

When it comes to flexible plastic packaging – of the sort used widely in microwave meals, bags of freezer food and the linings of cereal boxes – the rate of collection and recycling drops to a shockingly low 4%. These films account for about 50% of consumer products in the UK, but almost none is suitable for recycling.

As flexible packaging is expected to contribute one million tonnes of waste in the UK by 2025, government has the opportunity to avoid such non-recyclable plastic reaching landfills, incineration centres or open environments by supporting compostable alternatives, which actually enrich the soil rather than contaminating it with microplastics.

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The recently published studies must not be ignored. They should be used to motivate a more immediate effort to use materials that can be organically recycled, and the expansion of organic waste systems. There is more pressure now to transition swiftly to a 'New Plastics Economy' and encourage the use of novel materials that are organically recyclable and zero waste by nature.

This transition will be difficult, but there are two simple ways the UK government could make a major immediate difference.

Firstly, one of the main reasons our soils are so polluted with plastic particles is because our food waste collections are heavily contaminated with non-compostable plastic residues. This is because many people throw out their food waste in plastic bags. The Environment Agency estimates that over 100,000 tonnes per annum of plastic fragments are currently spread to soil with compost and digestate.

By 2023, the UK will have the capacity for nation-wide collection of compostable packaging along with food and garden wastes. If the British Government wants to reduce plastic in our soils, it should provide easy access to compostable bags in which to store and transport food waste from caddies to kerbside bins. This may sound like a big expense, but the Renewable Energy Association has estimated that it would save local authorities tens of millions of pounds in the cost of extracting plastic contamination from food waste. Meanwhile, compostable bags are a 'gateway' to ensuring that consumers understand compostable packaging should be disposed of in food waste, not thrown into dry plastics recycling.

Secondly and crucially, if we want food brands to move away from plastic packaging, we must encourage sustainable alternatives. However, the UK government currently plans to treat compostables in the same way as conventional single-use plastic under its new plastic packaging tax. Nature friendly alternatives should surely be exempted from the tax to encourage compostable solutions as an alternative unrecyclable plastic bags and films.

The UK public supports these measures. Recent polling by Populus found that 67% of UK consumers are concerned about increased plastic waste during lockdown, and 85% say compostable packaging should replace plastics.

For many, the all-consuming matter of coronavirus has pushed our environmental problems to the side for the time being. However, these problems aren't going away. And unlike coronavirus, we have the solutions at our fingertips.

In the case of plastics, the current plan is simply not working. A shrewd government would recognise that only by keeping plastic out of soil can we keep plastic out of our food, and out of our bodies.

19 votes

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