Labelling of plastic products should include a “sustainability scale” to help consumers navigate the confusing world of plastics and plastic recycling, according to research from the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia and University of Exeter, England,
With plastic pollution a growing global problem, Professor Kevin Thomas, Director of UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences and lead researcher for the Minderoo Centre—Plastics and Human Health, said unhelpful labelling and low recycling rates are major barriers to overcoming this issue.
“A new internationally applicable labelling system is required that moves focus from recyclability to sustainability,” he said.
“It needs to be specific to the country and region of purchase and provide information to the public about plastic additive content.”
Research and discussion on global plastic mismanagement led the team to put forward three key recommendations, the first of which is a clear and accurate sustainability scale included on plastic products to empower consumers to make decisions based on environmental and human health implications.
Labels should also carry directions on how to appropriately dispose of the item in the region of purchase, as well as include a comprehensive list of plastic compositions.
Thomas hopes that the team’s recommendations spark a reassessment of plastics labelling and that implementation of a sustainability scale enables consumers to make informed decisions on how they use and dispose of plastics.
However, the research team stressed that the recommendations should not take away from the need to use less plastic, particularly single-use items.
Currently, around 368 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide each year, with recycling rates varying dramatically.
For instance, Germany recycles 62 percent of its plastic waste, considerably more than the European average of 30 percent, while China recycles an estimated 25 percent, Australia 14 percent, and the U.S. just 8 percent.
Lead author PhD candidate Stephen Burrows, also from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences, said consumers need to be equipped with the knowledge to make sustainable choices.
“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,” he said.
“Requiring packaging to carry region-specific directions for disposal would shift responsibility away from consumers and towards regulators and plastic producers.”
Burrows added that this aspect is critical because the range of plastic products is complex and confusing, so industry needs to be responsible for clear, accurate and accessible instructions on how to best dispose of used plastic items.
Elaborating on this confusion, Burrows used the example of PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastic single-use coffee cups, many of which are now labelled as recyclable and compostable.
He said that while it might be recyclable, local facilities may or may not be equipped to process PLA, so it may not be suitable for everyone’s recycling bin.
It may also be compostable, but many of these cups can only be broken down in industrial composters, so it won’t work in a backyard compost heap. Then, if it is thrown into general waste, it will end up in landfill.
Burrows said that if someone uses one of these cups and then sees a green recycling bin and a ‘general waste’ bin, it would be hard to know where to put it.
“Most people don’t know, and in fact, the answer may depend on several factors not usually indicated,” he said.
“Our suggestions for a new labelling system based around a sustainability scale are designed to tackle this confusion.”
Burrows added that labelling should also include any chemicals added to a plastic product to give it certain properties, like 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,” he said.
The research paper, published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy, is titled “The message on the bottle: Rethinking plastic labelling to better encourage sustainable use.”