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  • Writer's pictureNikki Latham

Plastic Labelling Needs 'Sustainability Scale

Researchers propose the implementation of a new "sustainability scale" to aid consumers when assessing plastic products and the labels they contain.

Plastic pollution is an ever-increasing concern on a global level, and plastic debris has infiltrated places as diverse as the Arctic and Mount Everest.

Labelling which is too simplistic and unhelpful, as well as the low rates of recycling even in countries which are most capable of handling this problem, are some of the main impediments to tackling this matter.

A research paper from the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland has proposed a novel international labelling system that places emphasis on sustainability, instead of merely recyclability. It will be tailored to the purchaser's country and region, while also providing information on the plastic additives present in the product.

"We need to empower consumers to make more sustainable choices," said first author Stephen Burrows, whose research is funded by QUEX Institute, a partnership between Exeter and Queensland. "Instead of 'yes-no' recycling labels, which are often misleading, a 'sustainability scale' could take account of recyclability but also other factors such as the environmental cost of production and potential human health risks from additives.

"Requiring packaging to carry region-specific directions for disposal would shift responsibility away from consumers and towards regulators and plastic producers.

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

"The same is true for the chemical additives found in many plastics. These chemicals are added to plastics to give them certain properties such as colour, flexibility and fire resistance.

"Requiring producers to list all additives would be a major step towards informing the public and helping them make decisions regarding environmental impact and human health."

The researchers emphasize the importance of reducing plastic usage, especially single-use products, in addition to the mentioned recycling efforts. Globally, approximately 368 million tonnes of plastic is produced yearly, but the effectiveness of recycling programs differ among countries. Germany stands at an admirable 62%, much greater than the European standard of 30%. China and the United States are, respectively, at 25% and 8%. Professor Tamara Galloway, from the University of Exeter, said: "Our recommendations for a sustainability scale are designed to reduce some of the confusion around plastic disposal. "The ultimate aim is to protect the environment and human health from the harmful effects of plastic waste."

Professor Kevin Thomas, from The University of Queensland's Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences and Minderoo Centre for Plastics and Human Health said: "We hope that our recommendations initiate a reassessment of plastics labelling and that implementation of a sustainability scale will allow individuals to make informed decisions in how they use plastics. “This is just one small necessary step towards helping people help the environment.” The research team included the University of Bath. The paper, published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, is entitled: "The message on the bottle: Rethinking plastic labelling to better encourage sustainable use."

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