The launch of the government’s 25 year environment strategy, the emotional power of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet reinforced plus on-going campaigns by Sky and the Daily Mail has turned the spotlight on plastic. Numerous campaigns have been launched calling for bans on single use plastics. Companies have been scuttling out statements on new policies at a startling rate.

Challenging the throwaway society is welcomed but we are heading into dangerous territory where emotion overwhelms environmental common sense. The green movement has been in this place before. The focus on carbon dioxide emissions to the detriment of other pollutants led to the love-in with diesel cars even though the impact of particulates on urban air quality was long known.

Demonising plastics might be a handy way for government to steer public attention away from some of the significant fault lines within the 25 year environment strategy but is not a robust policy platform.

There are reasons that plastic has become so prevalent in modern living. It is extremely effective at helping preserve food for longer and its light weight reduces carbon emissions from transportation. Ignoring these benefits could lead to some strange choices. Are we really going to start rejoicing when a growing number of drinks start appearing in energy hungry aluminium cans made from open-cast bauxite mines?

We need to move away from the current ‘all plastics are bad’ tirade to approaches that are truly more sustainable. Amongst these would be:

Creating a stronger UK recycling infrastructure

The current PRN policy framework has made it easier and more profitable for the waste industry to stick recyclable materials onto boats for export. This needs to change so that investment remains in the UK creating the infrastructure required for us to handle our own waste.

Reducing single use plastic

A strong and consistent push is needed to move the public away from an addiction to throw-away single use plastic. Targeting plastic straws is a great first step but we need to go further looking at all forms of frivolous plastic products such as those used by many chains to entice children to buy their products.

Demonstrating that plastic has a value

If there are sufficient collection and recycling facilities then waste plastic can become a valuable resource. This message needs to be communicated to the public so that less plastic is littered and recycling rates are increased. Promoting this circular message should be at the heart of communication from retailers and manufacturers.

‘Recycling on the go’ needs addressing

The way we eat and drink food is changing with more being consumed on the move creating more packaging that has the potential to be littered. The recycling infrastructure has not developed sufficiently quickly to keep up with this trend.

Product design needs to change

Designing for circularity or recycling needs to become core to the process. Too often we are seeing new lines of packaging created without any consideration to their end of life causing huge challenges for the recycling industry.

The burden of cost needs to be shared more equally

To-date industry is getting a free ride. It can create products and build profit without having to consider the cost of disposal which instead is falling on an ever-strained public purse. This cost burden needs to change.

Hopefully the debate will settle down and we will start to see these sort of robust policies develop. If we don’t I fear we will be leading to knee-jerk solutions that do not have long-term environmental benefits.