Plastic labeling requires a ‘sustainability ladder’ – ScienceDaily

Plastic product labeling needs a radical overhaul, including a new “sustainability ladder” to help consumers, researchers say.

Plastic pollution is a growing global problem, with an increasingly complex mix of plastics found everywhere from the Arctic to Mount Everest.

Simplistic and unnecessary labeling and low recycling rates, even in the best equipped countries, are major obstacles to solving this problem.

In a new paper, experts from the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland suggest a new, internationally applicable labeling system that shifts the focus from recyclability to sustainability, is country-specific and to the region of purchase and informs the public about the content of plastic additives.

“We need to empower consumers to make more sustainable choices,” said first author Stephen Burrows, whose research is funded by the QUEX Institute, a partnership between Exeter and Queensland.

“Instead of ‘yes-no’ recycling labels, which are often misleading, a ‘sustainability ladder’ could take into account recyclability but also other factors such as the environmental cost of production and the potential risks to human health from additives.

“Requiring that packaging carry region-specific disposal instructions would shift the onus from consumers to regulators and plastic producers.

“This is vital because the mix of plastic products is so complex and confusing that the industry must be responsible for clear, precise and accessible instructions on how best to dispose of plastic items.

“The same goes for the chemical additives found in many plastics. These chemicals are added to plastics to give them certain properties such as color, flexibility and fire resistance.

“Requiring producers to list all additives would be a major step in informing the public and helping them make decisions about the impact on the environment and human health.”

The researchers stress that their recommendations should not overshadow the urgent need to use less plastic, especially single-use items.

Currently, approximately 368 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide each year.

Estimates of recycling rates vary widely. For example, Germany recycles 62% of its plastic waste, well above the European average of 30%.

Meanwhile, China recycles about 25%, while the figure in the United States is only 8%.

Professor Tamara Galloway, from the University of Exeter, said: “Our recommendations for a sustainability ladder are designed to reduce some of the confusion around phasing out plastic.

“The ultimate goal is to protect the environment and human health from the harmful effects of plastic waste.”

Professor Kevin Thomas, from the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences and the Minderoo Center for Plastics and Human Health at the University of Queensland, said: “We hope our recommendations will initiate a reassessment of the labeling of plastics and that implementing a sustainability ladder will enable individuals to make informed decisions about how they use plastics.

“It’s just one small step needed to help people protect the environment.”

The coffee cup riddle

Speaking of consumer confusion, Burrows gave the example of single-use coffee cups made from bioplastic PLA (polylactic acid).

Many of these cups are now labeled as recyclable and compostable – but these are separate processes.

Depending on the composition of the cup, it may be recyclable, but this depends on whether local facilities are equipped to process PLA. So it may not fit your recycling bin.

It might also be compostable – although many of these cups can only be broken down in an industrial composter (not a backyard compost heap). So if it’s thrown in general trash, it will end up as more plastic in landfills.

“If someone uses one of these mugs and then sees a green recycling bin and a ‘general waste’ bin, where should they put it?” said Burrows.

“Most people don’t know, and in fact the answer may depend on many factors that are not usually given.

“Our suggestions for a new labeling system based on a sustainability scale are designed to combat this confusion.”

The research team included the University of Bath.

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