The war on plastic - what does it mean for the UK manufacturing industry?

13.09.2018

Once dubbed “the material of a thousand uses” due to its versatility and cost advantages, plastic is fast losing popularity. From shopping bags to drinking straws and takeaway containers, it seems the supreme reign of single-use plastic is coming to a crashing halt as governments around the globe start cracking down on the material that has posed a threat to the environment for far too long.

And it’s about time: since 1964, global plastic production has soared from 15 million tonnes to 311 million tonnes in 2018 – a figure which is expected to double in the next 20 years. While customers and manufacturers alike have long been aware of the detrimental impact of plastic to our planet, the startling effects of our plastic addiction are now being felt in ways we can’t ignore: just look at Plastic Island, a floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean thought to be three times the size of France.

Now, the UK and the EU are taking their first steps toward banning single-use plastic in an attempt to prevent further harm to the environment. It may be the need of the hour, but the economic cost attached is often overlooked. As the country edges closer towards a full plastic ban, what will this mean for the manufacturing and packaging industries?

The immediate fallout

Already, government initiatives including the imposed levies on plastic carrier bags have significantly affected sales in the UK plastic manufacturing industry over the last five years.
What’s more, according to a recent survey of plastics makers, many firms in this sector are now struggling to hire workers due to the negative opinions surrounding the creation and usage of plastic.

While unsurprising, director general of the British Plastics Federation Philip Law said the UK government’s war on plastic is being “expressed in a way that is putting young people off”. He warned that the narrow focus on single-use plastics could undermine an industry that also serves the automotive, manufacturing and healthcare sectors, and supports more than 166,000 jobs.

“There are rumours afloat that the government is considering significantly raising the fees that plastics producers pay to produce their product – as well as levying a new plastics tax on the industry that would take funds from manufacturers and put them into government coffers,” he wrote.

A country unprepared

While the European Commission aims to ban single-use plastics entirely by 2021, the UK government has set a more realistic goal of 2043. It may seem far in the future, but it’s overly optimistic to think society can adapt so fast to such a drastic change. In Maharashtra, India, a blanket ban on plastic packaging threatened the livelihood of over 400,000 people through the proposed closure of 50,000 plastic manufacturing firms.

If the UK were to follow suit, the change would have to be gradual: as it stands, there simply isn’t the infrastructure or capacity to eradicate plastic entirely overnight. Already, we struggle to recycle the 2.5 billion coffee cups that are thrown away every year as facilities lack the ability to process the plastic lining used to make a recyclable cup waterproof. Similarly, despite the news that fast food giant McDonalds plans to completely remove plastic straws from their restaurants by 2019, there is yet to be a single factory in the UK dedicated to producing sustainable alternatives.

A new era in manufacturing

While paper packaging companies will be the immediate beneficiaries of the plastic ban, a new report suggests the UK is uniquely placed to become the world leader in bioplastics, creating jobs and revenue for the country while tackling the environmental damage that plastic has to the planet.

In their report, bio-economy consultants NNFCC suggested that with the right government policy and funding in place, bioplastics – plastics made from plants instead of oil - could create 34,000 jobs and contribute £1.92 billion to the UK economy in the next decade.

“The UK is the birthplace of the plastic industry,” says Adrian Higson, Lead Consultant for Bio-based Products at NNFCC.

“With the right investment in scaleup facilities, the UK could be the world leader in the export of sustainable, biodegradable plastics, helping tackle the world’s most pressing environmental challenges in the process.”

“However, our report also highlights the dangers of insufficient investment. Bioplastics are ripe for innovation. If the UK doesn’t capitalise on the opportunity, UK manufacturers will become reliant on foreign imports for bioplastics.”

As we enter a new era of manufacturing, the UK government needs to support the transition away from harmful materials towards sustainable options; they must now take findings from ground-breaking research and transform it into industrial scale production. With the necessary investment, the hope is that any job losses caused by the closure of plastic packaging manufacturers will be counteracted by the creation of roles in factories focused on sustainable alternatives: that’s a future we can all look forward to.