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By Earl Russell
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Why Recycling Matters to Net Zero

OPRL say that packaging has the potential to make a significant impact on net zero and beyond | Credit: OPRL

Jane Bevis, Executive Chair

Jane Bevis, Executive Chair | OPRL

3 min read Partner content

The last 16 months have reminded us that everything is interconnected. If we abuse natural resources, nature strikes back. If we abuse the atmosphere, the climate strikes back. But what does packaging have to do with Net Zero, biodiversity and social justice?

More than you might think.  Packaging prevents massively more GHG emissions than it contributes.  It typically accounts for under 3% of the carbon in fast-moving consumer goods, the rest being product-related.  Protecting that product is therefore vital.  But using packaging materials more efficiently, including recycling materials, also delivers big benefits, cutting packaging-related emissions by up to 95%. Three in five of us are recycling more post-Covid, but need a strong, consistent steer to help get it right.

Food facts

Emissions from food production currently represent 1.6t CO2e per UK household and 10mt of food is wasted in the UK annually, 70% binned at home. Well-designed packaging extends shelf-life and reduces wastage. The naked produce debate fails to reflect the 7-10 days extra shelf-life a thin plastic film gives cucumbers or the containment of ethylene from ripening bananas that makes nearby fruit and veg go off faster.

Plastic has its place

The design of packaging and materials chosen are crucial. Green Alliance estimates switching from plastic packaging to other materials could triple associated carbon emissions to 4.8bn tCO2e. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is calling for a 30% reduction in iron and steel consumption by 2050. While work is underway to reduce materials-associated emissions (emerging developments could reduce the carbon footprint of aluminium by 85%, for example) water, soil, habitat and biodiversity, and landscape impacts from mining, extraction and deforestation together with the displacement of food production and social impacts on indigenous communities are significant considerations for ‘virgin’ and bio-based materials.

Reuse and recycling really matter

Our Take, Make, Throw lifestyles inflate the carbon footprint of packaging enormously. CCC want to ban all biodegradable waste from landfill by 2025. That includes compostable, biodegradable, paper, card and fibre-based packaging. Even with methane capture (helping shrink the waste sector’s carbon footprint by 69% since 1990) the climate-changing effect from biodegradables in landfill is significant. We should prioritise reuse and recycling, stop landfilling and recover energy as a last resort.

Refill systems are growing quickly in cleaning, laundry, personal care and dry goods, though Covid knocked back on-the-go food and drink and deli/butchery counter initiatives. Single-use packaging can radically shrink its footprint by using more recycled materials: CCC has set an ambition for 70% recycling rates to help achieve Net Zero.

Recycled aluminium (drinks can) uses 95% less energy than virgin, recycled PET (drinks bottle) and steel (beans can) save 75% and recycled paper or card 45%.

Consumers count

Which brings us back to consumers, eager to play their part. OPRL research shows 19 in 20 of us want to do the right thing but need help from government and business to do it.

Confusion on what can be recycled is the biggest barrier to action and the current multiplicity of recycling symbols adds to that confusion. Fewer than 1 in 5 people understand what most so-called recycling symbols mean. The Government’s plans in the Environment Bill to introduce mandatory recycling labelling could help, but only if a single, clear and consistent label design is used.

UNEP and Consumers International global research shows evidenced, honest claims and clear calls to action are essential in inspiring pro-environmental behaviours. They point to OPRL labels, understood by 3 in 5 consumers, as an exemplar. Government should adopt this ready-made, best practice solution for low carbon packaging.

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