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Penalized Plastic: Exploring the Impact of the UK's Plastic Packaging Tax

April 12, 2022
April 12, 2022
tanvi sharma via Unsplash

Plastic presents not just a sustainability challenge for the beauty industry, but a much larger looming issue as well. Greenhouse gas emissions created in the production, disposal, and use of plastic would constitute 15% of allowed emissions by 2050.

Previously, the British Standards Institute introduced ​​standards for biodegradability and compostability claims for plastic packaging. Last month, the UN announced a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution, due to be completed by the end of 2024. The Plastic Packaging Tax, as of April 1, 2022, is ushering in the next phase of brand accountability. The regulation entails a £200 tax per ton of packaging that is produced using less than 30% recycled plastic for any company producing or importing over 10 tons of filled or unfilled plastic packaging into the UK. For those wanting to bypass the fine, it means an extensive overhaul of their primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging.

“At a macro level our industry is held back by a lack of innovation in packaging materials and the strong lobbying from the plastics industry. The most difficult items for our industry are the small plastic items like caps, pumps and dispensers we use which cannot be recycled. There is a great opportunity here for innovation,” Jayn Sterland, Managing Director Weleda UK, tells BeautyMatter.

Plastic packaging doesn’t just affect the exterior, but product development overall. Wǒ Skincare, which has 80% of its packaging made from up to 80% recycled PET, had to rethink new product launches in order to uphold their sustainability principles. “It can be challenging to find compatible packaging material for some formulations containing certain active ingredients,” founder Karen Lee-Thompson comments. Case in point: biodegradable packaging options that don’t disintegrate upon contact with liquids, although the likes of On Repeat are offering new solutions on this front. “Continuous effort to fund and innovate more sustainable alternatives is the key, plus creating and using products in better ways to eliminate waste in the first place. As this regulation applies to products in the UK only, we hope those global companies and brands who produce a massive amount of products every year take this regulation and apply it voluntarily in a more significant way to everything they make,” Thompson adds.

"Why launch a new product when we need better pack solutions?"
By Karen Lee-Thompson, Founder, Wǒ Skincare

For Weleda, which offers a freepost recycling initiative for customers to return their packaging, planting a tree with reforestation charity TreeSisters for every package returned, as well as packages 75% of its products in either aluminum or glass, the tax still has a large impact on day-to-day operations. “We have to spend a huge amount of time collating and submitting our plastic usage. In many ways you could see this as endless bureaucracy, and extremely time consuming, but actually, it’s very important and that old saying ‘you cannot manage what you cannot measure’ is useful here. Having visibility of plastic used and utilized in the manufacture, production and distribution—yes, there is a lot of plastic wasted in just shipping products—is an extremely important exercise,” Sterland states.

An accessible price point is another hurdle in the fight to reduce plastic, as a can of aluminum costs 25-30% more than a PET one. “Personally, I think materials which have value, like stainless steel and aluminum, are the route forward because if there is intrinsic value in packaging we will not throw it away but move into a more circular system of recycling. The problem is plastic is just too cheap,” Sterland states. “I’d also like to see us making paper and cardboard out of annual crops like hemp, rather than cut down mature trees which not only take hundreds of years to grow but are the Earth’s lungs and recycled carbon dioxide into oxygen.” She also sees refill-based models as another beneficial model of operation.

While one tax regulation won’t change the entire industry, it’s a step in the right direction, and a reminder to develop with an eye to the future. “Instead of focusing solely on the margin, we have to see these positive changes as an investment for the future. Any rework should be two steps ahead and not just addressing the burning issue at this moment in time,” Thompson adds.

However, the playing field isn’t equal for all brands. “Sadly, having spoken to some brands, some of which are very large, the ‘penalty payments’ are too low and it is almost cheaper to pay these than to do the detailed work,” Sterland adds. Currently Weleda is committed to a “do no harm” packaging strategy by 2030, using only recycled materials and having 100% recyclable packaging. “But this is really hard for a global brand as every country has their own standards and some countries have virtually no infrastructure to do so,” Sterland notes. “It’s a systemic problem which needs solving on a global level, not by individual countries and brands.” The reality is that such undertakings are not feasible for every brand out there, especially those operating on a smaller scale with limited financial resources. Furthermore, it’s not just about what product leaves the warehouse or production studio in what bottle, but how that object can be recycled through the hands of the consumer. Weleda will soon have an on-pack traffic-light system for formulations and packaging.

The Plastic Packaging Tax may mean additional paperwork and complex packaging production restructuring, but Thompson sees the legislation as something that brand owners will welcome as a means of improving their sustainability focus. “From top-down, I can see the industry embracing the transformation. We are all consumers living in this world and collectively want to do the right thing for our environment at the end of the day,” she adds. Sterland believes that the packaging of products should be emphasized as a point of innovation just as much as the product inside of it. As she puts it: “We spend millions of pounds/dollars developing new products—imagine if we channeled this resource collectively into developing new sustainable packaging solutions? Why launch a new product when we need better pack solutions?”

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