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We need a whole-system approach to ensure a sustainable future for plastics that helps deliver net zero

We need a whole-system approach to ensure a sustainable future for plastics that helps deliver net zero

Michelle Norman, Director of Sustainability | Suntory Beverage & Food GB&I

5 min read Partner content

The UK needs a step-change in our response to climate change if we are to meet the commitments made at COP26 and keep 1.5 alive.

While it may seem only a small part of a much bigger problem, our society’s historically poor use of plastic, which is manufactured from fossil fuels, needs to be addressed. The ambition behind the Plastic Packaging Tax – to encourage manufacturers to invest in recycled plastic – which comes in force from today, is the right one but by itself isn’t enough to ensure a sustainable future for plastics, nor to get us on track for reaching net zero.

Fortunately, we can take some inspiration from the words of Sir David Attenborough in his COP 26 keynote: “We are after all, the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on Earth... a new industrial revolution, powered by millions of sustainable innovations, is essential, and is indeed already beginning”.

Suntory Beverage and Food Great Britain & Ireland (SBF GB&I), makers of iconic brands Ribena, Lucozade, and Orangina believes there is a sustainable future for plastic. It’s lighter than glass or metal, meaning fewer carbon emissions from moving it around the supply chain. Its storage properties and the ability to reseal many types of plastic packaging also extends product life, helping us to minimise food waste and unnecessary emissions in food production. However, to achieve that future, we need a truly circular system. One where no fossil fuels are used to manufacture new plastic, and where all existing plastic is recycled and re-used endlessly.

Manufacturing plastic bottles from recycled materials results in 79% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to bottles made from new plastic[1] – so achieving this future is also a key part SBF GB&I’s own target of reducing our emission by 50% by 2030 and 100% across our entire supply chain by 2050.

We are committed to only use recycled or plant based plastic to make all our bottles by 2030 or sooner. Ribena was the first in the UK to make its bottles from 100% recycled material in 2007, and we recently updated the bottle design to give it the best chance of being turned back into another bottle, regardless of the technology at the sorting or recycling centre. Ribena has become a model for our other brands and we are already making changes to Lucozade and Orangina.

We’re also investing in the kind of green innovation David Attenborough cited at COP26. We are a member of the Carbios consortium, and recently announced a ground-breaking development in enzymatic recycling technology. This new technology overcomes the limits of mechanical recycling, meaning  there will be no limits to the number of times PET plastic can be recycled – plastic will be able to be recycled endlessly. That sustainable future is almost within reach.

However, while the Plastic Packaging Tax, which levies a charge on packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content, is a good step towards incentivising businesses to do the right thing and use more recycled materials, we’re currently facing a chronic shortage of food grade recycled plastic in the UK. Recycling rates are unfortunately stalling across large parts of the UK. The Government should therefore be looking to best practice of how we can drive up recycling rates.

There can be few better examples than in Wales, who can boast the third best household recycling rate in the world. The introduction of consistent household collections in 2011, which means that every council in Wales now collects the same materials, has been key to this transformation. While the UK Government has consulted on similar measures for England, we are still a number of years away from it being introduced.

Ribena has been designed for circularity

It is a similar story for Deposit Return Schemes and Extended Producer Responsibility reform – both of which will see businesses take additional responsibility for the packaging they produce and will help to drive up recycling rates. SBF GB&I supports the aims of these policies, and as a founding member of Circularity Scotland Ltd. we are working to introduce a deposit return scheme in Scotland. However, their introduction are still some years away as well.

Businesses like ours want to put more recycled plastic into our products, however shortages risk delaying progress – and these shortages are unlikely to be resolved until Government takes firm action.

SBF GB&I has therefore been calling on the UK Government to guarantee that initial revenues generated by the new Plastic Packaging Tax  will be used to put additional  investment into recycling and collection infrastructure. Even though the tax goes live today, the opportunity remains for the Government to take action in the Autumn Budget.

When the tax was originally announced, it was stated revenues generated would “enable investment to address single-use plastics, waste and litter”[2]. However, we have yet to see any detail or allocation of the £235m a year revenue.

If the Government truly wants to create a circular economy and deliver on its COP26 commitments, then this revenue needs to be reinvested. It should be committed to supporting local authorities in revolutionising their kerbside collections, or incentivising recycling plants to invest in the latest machinery and equipment, at least until DRS and EPR are activated. Further, we believe green taxes should not be used for general spending, but to further our fight to hit net zero.

The time to act is now. Companies like SBF GB&I are stepping up to do what needs to be done, but we need government to play its part and deliver the system-wide changes that only government can make as soon as possible. The Plastic Packaging Tax by itself is not enough.

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