From packaging manufacturers to waste management firms, and from retailers to Government, everyone is scrabbling to appear to be doing something about plastic. Because that most precious of groups, consumers, have woken up to the evils of excess packaging. 

Plenty of businesses have made commitments and pledges, and a few have already made changes. The doers include Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza, which has a plastic-free aisle with goods packaged in biodegradable materials. And Iceland now sells its Hungry Heroes kids’ meals on paper trays, reducing the product’s plastic by 85 per cent. Iceland was ahead of the game, announcing its plans in January to design out plastics from its own-brand packaging before the Government voiced its concern.

“We’re not trying to say that plastic is a really bad thing, but it’s polluting the sea and getting into the food chain, and we wanted to do something about it,” said Iceland’s head of sustainability Richard Parker at the Recycling Association’s Quality First conference this spring. Parker has mapped out the steps for every product range to be plastic-free by 2023. “It’s a massive job to do this across 1,400 product lines,” he adds.

Plastic is only part of the sustainability problem, but it is a highly conspicuous part – as Blue Planet II’s coverage of a dead whale calf proved. In the last 20 years, the production of plastic has increased 20-fold. Britain generates about 3.7m tonnes of plastic waste annually, and about a third gets dumped in the environment rather than being recycled, put in landfill or incinerated. The UK is one of the EU’s largest waste exporters, in part because it lacks recycling capacity at home. But with China’s ban on some “foreign garbage”, the pressure is on.

The heroes of this packaging journey will be those who somehow join up all the complex dots.

As well as the retailers making the right noises, there are beacons of hope in the packaging world. Birmingham packaging manufacturer Biopac has seen a run on its compostable paper straws. And through Müller’s delivery business Milkandmore, 1,100 delivery staff deliver more than 100m pints of milk in glass bottles a year.

But many people are worried that these piecemeal changes will be a drop in the ocean. The heroes of this packaging journey will be those who somehow join up all the complex dots.

“The Government should be legislating to bring everyone into the room,” says Parker at Iceland, pointing out that retailers “all use the same suppliers and packers”. That could lead to tricky and perhaps unpopular policy changes to fix the whole plastics recycling system.

If plastic were valuable on land, then people would stop chucking it in the sea. Because the real crisis is being played out in developing countries. Their poor waste management systems mean they are responsible for 80 per cent of the oceans’ plastic.

Back in the UK, the spotlight is yet to fall on one of the biggest perpetrators: fast-food outlets. Even customers who are eating in at Pret A Manger, McDonald’s and plenty of other cafés are fed using disposable, single-use crockery and cutlery. However, a strong Government ruling to introduce china and to hire someone to do the washing-up would no doubt get these companies’ hackles up.

Coupled with a cautious Government is a public seemingly wedded to convenience. Retailers and manufacturers like to wring their hands about consumers’ slowness or lack of appetite to change their ways. But perhaps there are now signs of a shift in behaviour. For example, in the first quarter of 2018, 12,000 new customers signed up to Milkandmore.

This new goodwill around sustainable solutions could lead to widespread, meaningful improvements. Simon Ellin, CEO of the Recycling Association, thinks so: “Retailers and producers have been caught out and I do smell change.”

And Parker for one is happy to share the expertise he’s building up at Iceland. “Hopefully we’ll develop some solutions that other people can follow.”

Take-out: Necessity is the mother of all invention. Eco-driven disruption is starting to show results.