Collaboration is key to tackling our reliance on plastics

Carl Nichols calls for joint action to create a circular plastics economy

“Ban plastic packaging.”

“Campaign to make where you live plastic-free.”

“Switch to bio-plastics and compostable materials.”

In the wake of the BBC’s Blue Planet 2, public interest in plastic has grown exponentially – and with it the number of proposed solutions to reduce the amount of plastic we use and throw away. But whilst I am delighted to see resource use and recycling at the top of the news agenda, I want to caution against knee-jerk reactions to this complex issue.

Understandably, many people are worried about the amount of plastic packaging used by the grocery sector – and to a certain extent they have a point. But things aren’t always clear-cut, as in the case of cucumbers. According to the Cucumber Growers’ Association, 500 tonnes of plastics is used to wrap cucumbers in the UK every year. This plastic extends their lives from three days to 14, and so reduces the amount of cucumbers which end up going to waste, and with them all the time, energy, and water that went into growing, transporting and selling them. Food waste remains a huge global issue – if food waste were a country it would be the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter (after China and the USA) – so should we be prioritising food or plastic waste? Is it really possible to reduce both?

It certainly won’t be easy, particularly if Wales is to reduce its food waste by 50 per cent by 2025 as Lesley Griffiths proposed last year. But I believe that big ambition and challenging targets can deliver fantastic results – and you only have to look at the increase in the Welsh recycling rate over the past decade for evidence of this.

That’s why I welcome Hannah Blythyn’s announcement that Wales is to become the world’s first ‘Refill Nation’. We can all reduce the amount of plastics we use by taking simple steps such as using refillable water bottles and telling restaurant and bar staff that we don’t want a plastic straw in our drink. Equally importantly, we can ensure that the recyclable plastics we use at home, at work, or out and about can find another life by using recycling collections and recycling bins.

Because tackling the amount of plastics that end up in landfill or in the world’s oceans isn’t just about reducing the amount of plastics we use. It’s about ensuring that these plastics are kept in use for as long as possible – and to do that, we need to create markets for them.

This is one of the challenges that WRAP Cymru will address in our publication Towards a Route Map for Plastics Recycling: Creating Circularity for Plastics in Wales, which will be launched to mark the Volvo Ocean Summit on 5 June. In it, we make a series of recommendations for policy-makers, which we believe will help Wales achieve a truly circular plastics economy.

These recommendations aim to maximise the quality as well as the quantity of the plastics collected for recycling in Wales. We are also recommending significant investment in reprocessing infrastructure in Wales, and that the Welsh Government takes a lead in green public sector procurement by eliminating all non-recyclable materials and products from its estate.  

If Wales is to become an exemplar for the way we use and dispose of plastic, this collaborative approach is key. It’s also the approach that lies at the heart of the ground-breaking UK Plastics Pact, which was launched by WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in April.

The Pact is a unique collaboration which brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with NGOs and UK governments – including the Welsh Government. Its members, amongst them leading retailers and manufacturers, have committed to reach four targets by 2025: all plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable; 70 per cent of all plastic packaging to be effectively recycled or composted; use on average 30 per cent recycled content across all plastic packaging; and take actions to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items through redesign, innovation or alternative delivery models.

Make no mistake, these targets are challenging – but I believe that Wales can do even more. Which is why I am calling on the Welsh Government, Welsh local authorities and the wider Welsh public sector to adopt the recommendations set out in Towards a Route Map for Plastics Recycling, and, together with Wales’ reprocessing and manufacturing sectors, to continue working with WRAP Cymru to create the circular plastics economy which Wales deserves.


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Carl Nichols is Head of WRAP Cymru

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