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Here we look at the term single use and discuss whether in many instances a more appropriate description should be single serve.

With increasing media attention and a growing number of consumers looking to do the right thing for the planet, the ongoing debate surrounding the environmental impact of plastic continues to show no sign of abating.

However, when referring to plastics and the environment, there are terms repeatedly used which may need looking at in greater detail.
For example, the term ‘single-use’ regularly crops up, yet what does it mean, and when should it apply?

Arguably, all plastics are ‘single-use’, with most plastic products purposely designed to be used only once. In many ways, the term could also easily refer to all glass packaging as well as all paper packaging too. But when looking at the term in more detail, are we merely confusing ‘single-use’ with a more appropriate phrase such as ‘single-serve’? If we are, then the two distinct differences probably need looking into further.

For instance, all plastics are made for a purpose - whether it’s for food packaging, automotive parts, leisure items, technology, pharmaceutical or personal care. Yet some of these items have a longer shelf life than others, and this is where there can be confusion about what are ‘multi-use’ or ‘single-use’ or worst of all, ‘single-serve’ items - i.e., packaging that is opened once and then immediately discarded.

There is no doubting that plastic offers many benefits to the food industry. This highly versatile material continues to play a vital role in providing hygienic ways to protect food, lengthen shelf life and minimise its waste while reducing overall resource consumption. However, it is worth considering how long a timescale the consumer uses that packaging before they throw it away.

Indeed, food and beverage packaging is often considered single-use, yet one could argue that packaging such as these should be called ‘single-serve’. This description is probably more accurate because items such as ready meal containers, meat on trays, yoghurt pots, even bottled water are often opened or drunk in one action and then thrown away - all in one single serving.

Conversely, personal care and cosmetics packaging are more often than not, repeatedly used, time and time again over a more extended period, before eventually being discarded and recycled. Therefore, personal care packaging could be considered as more multi-use than single-use and certainly not single-serve.

The personal care industry also benefits from the use of PET and HDPE, two of the most robust recyclable materials used in the UK and Europe. Unfortunately, this cannot always be said for the food sector, where non-recyclable materials are still being used for several applications. These can include anything from plastic bread bags, crisp packets, breakfast cereal inner bags, food, drink and pet food pouches to multipack tin can wrappers, cling films and food tray lids.

Indeed, this is supported by a recent survey carried out by Recoup, an organisation which promotes recycling, which revealed that only a third of the plastic food containers used in the UK are collected for recycling.

Other environmental areas for concern within the food industry are some of the problem plastics used within the ever-growing fast-food sector.

Last year, the UK Plastics Pact, a collaborative initiative formed by The Waste and Resources Action Programme (otherwise known as WRAP), brought together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain, with government support, to tackle unnecessary plastic waste.

The UK Plastics Pact, whose members are responsible for 85% of plastic packaging sold through UK supermarkets, pledged to take several actions to eliminate problematic and unnecessary single-use packaging items by 2025.

The UK Government recently announced that three items; plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, were to be banned from April 2020. However, the UK Plastics Pact also identified a number of other items, which they believed were other areas of concern. These include disposable cutlery, plates and bowls, polystyrene and PVC packaging and oxo-degradable materials, which break down to create microplastics.

However, the pact also recognised that the industry needed to do more when designing product packaging to be more recyclable. Consumer behaviour would also contribute significantly to the reduction of single-usage, with re-usable alternatives recommended whenever possible along with better education on what can and cannot be recycled.

Everyone involved within the plastics industry is fully aware of the challenges ahead, with many developing innovative new ways to tackle some of the issues, particularly around single-use and unnecessary plastic items. That said, we shouldn’t lose sight of the many benefits this incredibly useful material continues to provide to society.

For example, it could be argued that plastics are part of the solution to arresting climate change. Consuming as little as 4% of the world’s oil production as feedstock, the plastics industry continues to be less energy intensive than its metal, glass or paper counterparts. Indeed, it could be suggested that plastic products play a major role in saving and conserving energy and power safety.

Lightweight, durable, versatile, protective, easily shaped and inexpensive, plastic offers limitless positive solutions for a host of consumer applications, it's just a case of using it correctly and responsibly and maybe more than just once.