Plastic food and drink packaging Contents


1.First developed in the 1800s, plastics “have transformed all our lives as few other inventions have, mostly for the better”.1 An early application was replacing elephant ivory in products such as billiards balls with celluloid, which was hailed as a material that would eliminate the need “to ransack the Earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer”, thus preventing “an environmental catastrophe”.2 Global mass production of plastics took off in the 1950s, and in 1955, Life magazine introduced the concept of “throwaway living”, with an article depicting “the liberation of the American housewife from drudgery” as a result of disposable plates and cutlery that no longer required washing.3

2.Over 70 years later, public attitudes to throwaway plastics have changed, and life in plastic is not considered to be quite so fantastic. In 2017, plastic pollution of the marine environment captured public attention with the broadcast of the BBC series Blue Planet II.4 Recent public and political interest in reducing plastic use has been attributed, in part, to the Blue Planet Effect.5 In November 2018, the Government published its 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP), which estimated that “8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s [and] without urgent action to cut demand, this is likely to be 34 billion tonnes by 2050, the majority of which will end up in landfill or polluting the world’s continents and oceans”.6 Disposable, single-use plastics used for packaging food and drink are particularly problematic; a 2018 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stated that “the most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers”.7 The Government’s 25YEP highlighted that a recent Great British Beach Clean Up had found “718 pieces of litter for every 100m stretch of beach surveyed” of which “rubbish from food and drink made up at least one fifth”.8

3.The 25YEP set out the Government’s ambition to “work towards eliminating all avoidable waste by 2050 and all avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042”.9 In December 2018, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published Our waste, our resources: a strategy for England.10 This set out Defra’s plans to move towards “a more circular economy”.11 Several relevant Government consultations were held between February and May 2019 on:

a)Reforming the UK packaging producer responsibility system;

b)Consistency in Household and Business Recycling Collections in England;

c)Plastic packaging tax; and

d)Introducing a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.12

In July 2019, the Government published summaries of consultation responses and the Government responses to these consultations.13

Our inquiry

4.We were particularly interested in plastic food and drink packaging, given the environmental consequences of plastic marine pollution and our 2017 Report on Food Waste in England, which touched on the role of packaging in reducing food waste.14 In addition, all materials, including plastic, have environmental impacts beyond marine pollution. In March 2019, we launched our inquiry, asking for written submissions on the potential impact of Government proposals, the development of alternatives to plastic, where plastic packaging was necessary and barriers to innovation.15 We received 84 written submissions and took oral evidence from a range of experts. In addition, we held a private roundtable discussion with small and medium sized companies developing products designed to replace, reduce or maximise the benefits of plastic packaging. A note of that discussion is at Annex A. We also wanted to ensure we captured a range of public views and ran a web forum discussion, asking about recycling, packaging and food waste and the role of retailers and take-away outlets.16 We would like to thank everyone who contributed to our inquiry.

5.Chapter 1 of this Report looks at current use of plastic packaging and Chapter 2 covers recycling, which is where most of the Government’s recent proposals have focused. Chapter 3 looks at alternative packaging materials, particularly compostable plastics, and Chapter 4 examines ways to reduce single-use packaging for food and drink.

1We Depend On Plastic. Now, We’re Drowning in It.” National Geographic, June 2018

2We Depend On Plastic. Now, We’re Drowning in It.” National Geographic, June 2018; Q25 [Libby Peake]

3We Depend On Plastic. Now, We’re Drowning in It.” National Geographic, June 2018

4Blue Planet II”, BBC iPlayer, last accessed 2 September 2019

7 United Nations Environment Programme, Single use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability, 2018, Executive Summary

11 HM Government, Our waste, our resources: a strategy for England, December 2018, p 4

12 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Consultation on reforming the UK packaging producer responsibility system, February 2019; Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Consultation on consistency in household and business recycling collections in England, February 2019; HM Treasury, Plastic packaging tax: consultation, February 2019; and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Introducing a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, February 2019

14 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2016–17, Food waste in England, HC 429, paras 68–76

15 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Plastic food and drink packaging inquiry launched, 28 March 2019

16 UK Parliament Discourse, EFRA Committee, last accessed 2 September 2019; the link to the web forum was public and was also emailed to those who signed petition 222715 (Require supermarkets to offer a plastic-free option for all their fruit & veg) and petition 232684 (Ban the use of all non-recyclable and unsustainable food packaging)

Published: 12 September 2019