Plastic has conquered the world. From manufacturing to retail, its presence is felt in virtually every stage of the supply chain. The soft drinks industry has been particularly quick on the uptake, with plastic bottles the pack solution of choice for some of the world’s biggest brands.

Since PET bottles first became a mainstay of the soft drinks market in the eighties, consumers have increasingly shunned aluminium cans and glass bottles in favour of throwaway plastic.

Plastic doesn’t always rule the roost, however.

Despite sustained industry attempts to present plastic as a viable pack solution for alcohol, it has largely failed to make real headway in beer, wine and spirits (BWS). PET bottles account for less than 5% of beer purchased from shops in Britain. Plastic has largely failed to make inroads in the UK wine market too, with glass bottles the dominant player. Bag-in-box, the UK’s second most common wine packaging solution after glass, accounts for just 6.5% of total sales.

So why has plastic failed to crack BWS? Wine and plastic are far from ideal bedfellows given that PET bottles are more porous than glass containers and offer less protection from oxidisation. Plastic is also typically associated with convenience and low-cost products, which puts off consumers who want to indulge in a more premium experience.

The only setting where alcohol in plastic containers is commonplace is at sports stadia and music venues. In a bid to protect public safety, sports fans and festival-goers are now often served pints of beer in single-use plastic containers. While event organisers should be praised for taking a proactive approach to health and safety, there is a real danger that the tide of plastic waste is putting intolerable stress on the environment.

Our planet simply cannot stomach any more plastic. The UK currently produces 3.6 million tonnes of plastic each year, with thousands of PET bottles, six-pack rings, and pieces of multipack shrink wrap discarded in the environment every day. After decades of incessant consumption, chronic levels of plastic pollution have had dire consequences for wildlife and human health.

Debris from plastic packaging kills close to 1 million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals each year – not just in distant lands, but here on our shores and around our island. Globally we now dump more than 8 million tonnes of plastic in oceans annually, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation forecasting that there will be more plastic than fish in global seas by weight by 2050.

In a bid to turn the tide of plastic pollution generated by UK food and drink, earlier this year I teamed up with campaign group A Plastic Planet. The campaign has a single mission – a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. The aisle would feature exclusively goods free from plastic packaging, and would give consumers the chance to shun throwaway pack solutions in favour of plastic-free alternatives.

With the future of retail looking increasingly plastic-free, it would be ludicrous for the UK drinks industry to embrace more plastic packaging in its supply chain. By continuing to sell BWS in glass bottles and aluminium cans instead of PET containers, drinks manufacturers are ensuring their products will remain attractive to the increasing band of informed consumers who want to buy products that don’t wreak havoc on our environment and wildlife. 

There are a whole host of examples of BWS firms taking a lead on environmental issues, and it’s key that these examples of best practice are replicated elsewhere in the drinks industry. Yorkshire craft beer outfit Toast Ale has been lauded for its environmental record, while Chilean wine firm Concha Y Toro is a strong green performer and regularly features in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.

With alcoholic beverages central to a plastic-free future, it’s vital that the drinks industry continues to lead from the front on this issue.

Paul Foulkes-Arellano is Head of Retail Solutions at A Plastic Planet and Precipice Design Head of Client Programmes.