Can we remove single use plastic from UK food production and retail by 2030?
by Claire Horrocks from the Environment Agency
At the recent final of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC) debating competition one hot topic up for debate was the future of plastics in food production and retail. Two teams came head to head online to debate the motion.
‘This house believes that – we can remove single use plastic from all stages of UK food production and retail by 2030.’
I had the privilege of attending the debate in which both sides presented compelling and well-informed arguments.
I’m part of the Environment Agency’s plastics and sustainability team working on the Interreg Preventing Plastic Pollution (PPP) project. Through PPP we aim to engage young people and those working in the agricultural sector, to encourage them to think more about their plastic use and inspire behaviour change to reduce avoidable plastics. We proposed this debate topic to the NFYFC as single use plastics account for approximately half of all plastic produced and, as the name suggests, are designed to be used only once so are a major contributor to plastic waste.
It was particularly impressive to see the teams debate passionately for and against the motion as part of the competition – even when the points raised may not have been their personal views on the subject. Teams were asked to take a certain stance on the motion and had to research and prepare for the side of the debate they had been given.
The chair opened the debate by emphasising the importance of the topic, citing the Blue Planet documentaries as playing a key role in highlighting the harmful impacts plastics have on our oceans.
The proposition then took to the floor, they argued that time was of the essence in tackling a sustainability crisis. Their core arguments were that:
- Plastic lasts for hundreds of years once in the environment
- We can’t let future generations pay the price for our actions
- We can do it; we have successfully cut plastic bag use with the compulsory charge and many supermarkets now have refill schemes and biodegradable packaging options
Next up were the opposition, who argued that single use plastics are not the problem, people are. They argued that:
- Removing plastic packaging from food would increase food waste and the associated carbon footprint
- In the UK we generally manage our waste well, recycling it or sending to energy from waste plants, doing so prevents plastic ending up in the environment
- Biodegradable plastics are not the answer, as these have a higher carbon footprint than conventional single use plastics.
The ‘seconds’ from both teams then had a chance to speak. The proposition’s second countered the oppositions arguments saying that very little plastic in the UK was recycled and that reuse was the way forward. They highlighted concerns about the impacts of microplastic accumulation in soils on soil health and called for more substitutes for agricultural plastics.
The seconder for the opposition asserted that the propositions argument was too simplistic and that we would not be able to remove all single use plastic from the industry by 2030. They argued that plastic use in supermarkets is rising and that removing all plastic food packaging could increase food prices, impacting the poorest in society most.
After the chair neatly summed up the arguments on both sides, it was time for the vote… the audience voted with the opposition, against the motion. Perhaps the goal of removing all single use plastic from food production and retail by 2030 is too ambitious for these young farmers. The plastics and sustainability team work to support people to avoid, reduce and reuse plastic where possible, in line with the 25 Year Environment Plan. What could we achieve by 2030?