What is Single Use Plastic?

Danielle Tucker and Zara Babakordi

17th September 2020

Wanting to reduce the amount of plastic we use incorporates multiple changes in our lives. These everyday decisions are guided by the ethical, sustainable and moral concerns of ourselves and others around us. Our everyday decisions are complex and fluid as we navigate various perspectives on what types of plastic we should or shouldn’t allow into our homes. We use the term ‘single use plastic’ in our research to describe highly disposable and transient items which pass through our homes, however, the ambiguity around what is ‘single use’ and what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ plastic waste is a complex issue.

It has been important for our research to pause and reflect on the lack of consistency with which single use plastics are defined and what this might mean for the interpretation of policy in UK households. For example, the UK Government defines single use plastics as:

“all products that are made wholly or partly of plastic and are typically intended to be used just once and/or for a short period of time before being disposed of”

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2019)

Here, temporal intentions guide the categorisation of a plastic as ‘single use.’  In contrast, the British Plastics Federation argues that

“there is no such thing as single use packaging, all plastic packaging can be recovered for recycling or the generation of energy”  

British Plastics Federation (2020)

Here, while plastic packaging might be intended for short- and/or single-term use from a production-consumption perspective, the Federation focuses on the technicalities of its application in a post-consumption setting (e.g. the generation of energy). Some institutions, while actively targeting single use plastics, do not necessarily define the term (instead providing tangible examples).

An alternative approach has been to designate single use plastics through descriptors such as ‘avoidable’, ‘problematic’ and ‘unnecessary’.  This approach has been popular in grassroots activism, demonstrated with a range of campaigns and movements (in both off- and online spaces) that have drawn attention to the connections between environmental degradation (particularly, marine litter) and the ongoing production and consumption of single use plastics. This emotive rhetoric, that speaks to the ‘unnecessariness’ and ‘wastefulness’ of single use plastics supports a narrative that their production and consumption is in opposition with an environmentally and socially responsible lifestyle.

So we see that, debate and definition has focused more on the ways in which plastics are manufactured and disposed of but these definitions have little meaning to a household decision maker faced with constrained choices and pressure.

A 2019 UK survey from WRAP and INCPEN indicates that, overall, UK citizens have an equally favourable perception of biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging and believe they are better for the environment than other types of packaging.  However, this also demonstrates some of the confusion about such terminology, given that biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging differ from one another. A recent joint report led by the UN Environment Programme indicates similar findings, suggesting that consumers struggle to understand the differences between bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics.

It should of course be noted that some alternative plastics may be useful in practice (e.g. compostable food caddy liners), there is considerable consumer confusion about the sustainable properties of alternative plastics and the risks of unintentional harmful practices. For example, the majority of compostable plastic packaging and products that are technically compostable are not necessarily so in practice.  Compostable plastic packaging may only degrade in specific conditions, requiring industrial methods, and may be unsuitable for home composting. In recent guidance, Wrap (2020) states that the majority of the UK’s organic recycling infrastructure is not fully set up to receive compostable plastic waste; indeed, compostable plastic waste received is often treated as a contaminant.  Vice vera, compostable plastics entering conventional plastic recycling systems are also viewed as sources of contamination.

The challenges of alternative plastics are reflected in supermarket trials. For example, a joint report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace notes that Iceland, Tesco and M&S do not wholly support the use of biodegradable and/or compostable plastics, given the limited UK infrastructure in place to support the processing of such materials, alongside risk of consumer confusion.

So, where does this leave us in defining single use plastic in policy contexts? In attempting to engage public support for reducing single use plastic, we would urge policy makers and organisations to focus less on the main structural components of plastic and more on creating unambiguous messaging on plastic consumption. We would favour an approach which encourages the commitment of stakeholders across the plastics value chain to voluntarily commit to their core goals. To achieve this, a shared understanding of single use plastics which allows household decision makers to feel empowered to take action is imperative.

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