Most of us are familiar with the images of plastic-polluted oceans and their impact on wildlife globally. There have been several high-profile campaigns launched in recent years to raise awareness of these challenges including a powerful ‘Trash Isles’ campaign in 2018 that petitioned for a trash island in the Pacific – the size of France – to be declared an independent nation. While these campaigns provide a stark reminder of where so much of our daily food and drink packaging ends up, they also highlight the shortcomings of an uncircular economy, a term that is becoming more familiar in fashion, but only just starting to build awareness among UK consumers still wrapping their heads around effective recycling and re-use.
In its most colloquial sense, ‘circularity’ is a synonym for recycling. The principle is of course more sophisticated in practice, but from a consumer point of view, it is the reuse of materials as a means to reduce waste and emissions from packaging production. Despite the challenges presented by plastic pollution, recent research shows that 87 per cent of UK adults are unaware of what the circular economy is, indicating a clear lack of understanding – despite 81 per cent feeling passionately about more sustainable packaging solutions.
In a conversation on alternative plastics in a recent Sifted report, Sarah Greenwood, packaging technology expert at the University of Sheffield said that ‘if you don’t have a means of making it all circular, then it’s not really sustainable.’ While improving the green properties of packaging sounds like a step in the right direction, these efforts are made redundant if consumers do not understand how to extend the life cycle of ‘litter’ which has been designed to outlive one singular use.
Greenwood’s statement is also a nod to the greenwashing still rumbling on in the sector. In June 2022, Coca-Cola came under fire for promoting how its bottles are made of 25 per cent marine plastic, without acknowledgment that the giant is the world’s biggest plastic polluter. Perhaps one of the most infamous examples of misleading claims in recent times, but certainly not the only.
What does circularity mean for the everyday consumer?
There are several initiatives at play from organisations trying to implement circularity models. For example, in 2018 Wrap launched the UK Plastics Pact initiative, which brings together businesses from across the entire value chain to tackle plastic waste specifically by ‘keeping [plastic] in the economy and out of the natural environment’.
But consumers have a part to play: action doesn’t start and end with big corporates. A current example of this is the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), which was successfully implemented across several European countries years ago and is currently undergoing plans for rollout across the UK. When purchasing a bottle or can, individuals are charged a small deposit which can be reclaimed when they return their un-crushed empties to a collection point, acting as an everyday incentive to facilitate circularity.
The DRS is a prime example of how circularity requires systemic change in our behaviour, and therefore calls for more consumer education. Research reveals more than a quarter of consumers do not know what the DRS is, and although we cannot use this model alone to draw conclusions on overarching attitudes towards circularity, it does highlight industry learnings that must be addressed for initiatives to be successful.
Language will play a significant part in this journey to a sustainable future as we all aim to increase our understanding of how we can support the re-use of packaging materials and support a more circular system that helps us reach net zero faster.
That said, sustainability is a movement which requires collective action. The onus is on big producers, manufacturers, retailers and governments – not just to legislate and invest in the infrastructure for change, but to help educate consumers about changes being made and what they actually mean.
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