Should we reduce single use plastic by weight or items?

Zara Babakordi, 4th December 2020

Pictures taken from our 2020 diary study

Light weighting is a term used to describe the reduction in the weight of plastic packaging (but not necessarily a reduction in the volume of plastic packaging units). This may involve, for example, reducing the thickness of PET drink bottles, and is suggested to conserve materials, reduce packaging weight and reduce the energy used in production and transport of plastic packaging.  Our analysis revealed a number of supermarkets have redesigned certain plastic items/packaging to reduce plastic weight, for example, light weighting plastic bottles. Similarly, the Food and Drink Federation and the British Soft Drinks Association both provide case studies involving manufacturers light weighting plastic drinks bottles.

Light weighting, as an intervention, has been supported by the British Plastics Federation as one way of achieving plastic reduction targets. While recognising the need to ‘close the loop’ at the end of the plastics circle, the British Plastics Federation suggests this may be a suitable intervention for manufacturers at the beginning of their plastic reduction strategy without affecting functionality or risking food waste.

Unsurprisingly, there is concern and critique of the light weighting intervention. From a practical perspective, light weighting may increase the difficulty of an item being recovered and recycled within current recovery systems.  From another perspective, the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition has expressed concern in dialogue with the UK Government that light weighting allows manufacturers, producers and retailers to reduce the weight of packaging by using lighter materials rather than reducing overall total of packaging units. For the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition, this raises the possibility that manufacturers may achieve their targets without actually reducing the quantity sold, meaning that the number of items leaking into the natural environment may not actually decrease.  The coalition suggests that reductions in primary packaging from manufacturers, producers and retailers have been minimal in comparison to the growth in single use packaging, and largely focused on light weighting rather than unit-based reductions. They argue that reduction targets should be met by primarily reducing the number of items (units) rather than solely the weight of packaging as this is important for reducing plastic pollution.

Greenpeace argues that rather than light weighting, a complete phase-out of single use plastic packaging is required, with retailers focus on reducing the total number of single use plastic units. They argue that, while multinational corporations, for example, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo present light weighting as one solution within the circular economy, this technique allows companies to report plastic reduction by weight, rather than by the number of plastic units that may become litter.

For more information, please see our 2020 research report: Institutions, Interventions and Single Use Plastics

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