Anti-plastic focus 'dangerous distraction' from climate change

Guy Singh-WatsonImage source, Riverford Organic Farmers
Image caption,
Guy Singh-Watson's company supplies organic vegetables to tens of thousands of homes each week.

The anti-plastic "fervour" sweeping across the UK is weakening the fight against climate change, the founder of an organic food company has said.

Guy Singh-Watson, a prominent green entrepreneur and campaigner, said more focus should be put on cutting carbon.

PM Theresa May has pledged to ban all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

Environmental experts have said that the anti-plastic movement showed the public could be "mobilised" for action on green issues.

There has been growing awareness of the damage caused by single-use plastics after TV series Blue Planet II highlighted the issue last year.

But Mr Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, which supplies about 47,000 boxes of vegetables to homes in the UK each week, said demonising plastic could do more harm than good.

He said: "The fervour - the almost religious fervour - of some of our customers in (being) anti-plastic can actually create problems.

"Plastic is not in itself an evil material, it is the fact that we use so much of it.

"The biggest environmental challenge facing our planet is climate change - and anything that distracts attention from that is potentially dangerous."

Mr Singh-Watson, whose company is aiming to use only fully compostable plastic by 2020, says switching materials isn't always the best option - as some, like paper, can have a higher carbon footprint than plastic.

He said it would be "a step in the wrong direction" if companies focused too much on their plastic usage, rather than addressing energy efficiency or reducing their carbon footprint in other ways.

The government has pledged to tackle plastic waste and is considering a number of proposals, including a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds.

Positive steps to cut waste

  • Cut out cling film by using an upturned bowl or plate to cover leftovers, suggests Friends of the Earth.
  • Choose loose fruit and vegetables, rather than packaged products. Make a habit of bringing your own reusable bags to put them in, the campaign group adds.
  • Reusable cups and containers can reduce the need for manufactured packaging, cutting carbon emissions as well as waste, says environmental body the Grantham Institute.
  • Use your voice. The institute says politicians will act only if they know people care about environmental issues, so contact your MP or local council to press for action on reducing waste and carbon emissions.

Mr Singh-Watson said the biggest single issue the government needs to sort is the "ridiculous" lack of a unified recycling policy across the country.

He said companies struggle to come up with "sensible packaging", as different collection policies mean they don't know which material is the best option.

There are currently 39 different recycling schemes in England, but that is being reviewed by the government.

Consumers 'right' on plastic

Alyssa Gilbert, director of policy at Imperial College's Grantham Institute, which works on climate change and environmental action, said the popularity of the plastics issue proved there was enthusiasm for tackling environmental problems.

"The public have been mobilised and engaged in thinking about their relationship to the environment, and that's an amazing thing," she said.

But she agreed the wrong approach to cutting plastic use could be counter-productive.

Some plastic - such as wrapped cucumbers - helped to combat food waste, which in turn contributes to carbon emissions, she said.

And many UK companies were taking quite sophisticated approaches, such as co-operating to reduce the number of plastics used in the high street so that recycling becomes easier and more efficient, she added.

Reducing plastic also reduced dependence on the oil it is made from, says Rosie Cotgreave, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

She said: "Consumers are right to call for less plastic, but it's government policy and action that's needed if we are going to get to grips with the scale of the problem."

Hear more on the debate in Costing The Earth on BBC Radio 4 on 23 October at 15:30 BST, repeated on 24 October at 21:00.