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The unintended consequences of legislation

The unintended consequences of legislation
by Annis Mapleston at 14:18 in Circular Economy, Packaging, Environmental

​Governments around the world are passing legislation restricting or banning the use of certain types or forms of plastic. Many more countries are discussing doing so, and there are several voluntary initiatives worldwide to supplement existing legislation. Many of the bans and initiatives which have been in place for a while have resulted in significant reductions in plastic waste. But is it a complete success story?

Evidence is emerging from a number of sources to suggest that it isn't that simple. A new report from the Green Alliance suggests that whilst conscious decisions are being made to move away from plastic, there is often little consideration about the environmental impact or recyclability of substitute materials. For example, a number of UK supermarkets have replaced single-use plastic bags for loose produce and bakery items with single-use paper bags (which can have far higher carbon footprints, depending on how they are made). There is also a risk that the current trend for customers to bring their own containers to stores for filling will increase food waste, as food stored in this way may have a considerably shorter shelf-life.

Confusion over terminology isn't helping: a 2019 Greenpeace report ​identified that many products marked as 'compostable' or 'biodegradable' will only decompose completely under specific conditions, which are rarely met in the natural environment or home composting systems. Additionally, many products which could be recycled still end up being incinerated or put in landfill, as the available recycling systems often cannot keep up with the flow of waste and are overwhelmed.

Loopholes and inadequate definitions in legislation also have the potential to cause issues. For example, Eunomia have recently raised concerns ​about the exclusion of all natural polymers from the EU's Single-Use Plastics Directive, which allows certain materials to be used in single-use products such as wet wipes, and potentially marketed as being environmentally friendly, even though they do not decompose any more easily than more traditional plastics.

There is no easy answer to the issues raised in this blog (if there were, someone would probably have acted on them!). But everyone (manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike) should consider all the potential impacts of packaging changes rather than just moving headlong away from plastic.​

If you have any questions about how changes to legislation may affect your business, please contact us to speak to one of our consultants. If you're interested in reading more articles and blogs like this one, sign up to receive our free monthly digest. ​​​

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