How can we keep momentum going in the fight against plastic pollution?

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
The challenge now for the industry is how to keep momentum up. Image credit: Adobe Stock

By now, we’re all well-rehearsed on the whys and wherefores of the great plastic purge of 2018.

Too much plastic is finding its way into our rivers and oceans. Fact. Not enough is being done to capture and keep this material in the economy as long as possible. Fact. Plastic is not the enemy and any response should be calculated and driven by evidence, not emotion. Lesser known, but also fact.

The issue has floated all through society to the very top of the political ladder, with the UN Environment Programme publishing a first-of-its-kind report on the global efforts to address plastic pollution.

In Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability, case studies were presented from over 60 countries which looked at the complex relationships in the plastic economy alongside recommendations to improve waste management, promote eco-friendly alternatives and educate consumers. Its publication demonstrates a global shift in attitudes to plastic pollution, and not a moment too soon.

Official UN figures are a sobering read, with plastic making up to 10% of all human-generated waste and 100,000 marine animals predicted to be killed by plastic each year – a direct consequence of our consumption habits.

In the UK, Defra has been springboarding off the publication of its 25 Year Environment Plan in January by announcing a series of potential policies: from deposit return schemes to complete bans on some materials.

It’s an exciting time for the resources industry, yet the next challenge it faces is how to keep momentum up.

Putting policy under the microscope

Although plans to publish a Resources and Waste Strategy were set in motion well before the plastic purge, the strategy will undoubtedly feature plenty of workable solutions to cut down plastic pollution.

Given the 25 Year Environment Plan sets an aim to eradicate all “avoidable” plastics by 2042, many now look to the upcoming strategy to provide the answers for both the definition of avoidable, and how this could be achieved.

The issue of plastic pollution is complex and multi-stringed, with a general consensus that changes across the whole supply chain are needed in order for the problem to be properly tackled.

However, as Environmental Services Association (ESA) policy advisor Jakob Rindegren says, to solve the global problem, different approaches will be needed depending on the country. “Tackling marine plastic here will require a broader look at everything from microplastics from textiles to on-the-go recycling infrastructure.

“Developing countries lacking proper waste management need to start at that end, with a combination of infrastructure investment, enforcement of regulations, fiscal incentives and public awareness, rather than just bans on specific items in isolation.”

As for the Resources and Waste Strategy, Rindegren is frank in what he would like to see included in order to keep momentum up.

“ESA generally favours producer responsibility schemes for commonly littered items, including reform of the existing system for packaging, although bans or taxes where alternatives exist might be needed. Importantly, ESA would also like to see meaningful proposals to stimulate the demand for recycled content, for example through a tax on virgin plastic use.”

Producer responsibility is high on the agenda for many, with the recent Resourcing the Future Conference (see p25) reporting that 55% of delegates believed differentiated extended producer responsibility fees would be the most effective measure to reduce plastic packaging waste.

Similarly, one of the main recommendations of a new Aldersgate Report was to “optimise producer responsibility to capture more businesses and more products”. Policy has the potential to make a real mark in reducing plastic consumption and pollution and make a real difference; let’s hope it lives up to expectations.

Keep emotions in check

We were all quick to rally around Sir David Attenborough’s earnest and passionate speech at the end of Blue Planet II, with promises to ditch the coffee cup, plastic water bottle and any straw a bartender would dare to put in our Coca-Cola.

Less thought was perhaps given to the role plastics and packaging play in our society, from preventing food waste to helping those with disabilities live a more independent life, aided with pre-chopped food and plastic straws in public places.

Trewin Restorick, CEO and founder of environmental charity Hubbub, says the plastic issue is complex. “There is a danger that all the emphasis at the moment is demonising plastics with the possibility that this will lead to decisions being reached on selecting packaging that is more environmentally damaging.”

Change is needed in every part of the chain, with a lot of responsibility coming down to behaviour. “The UN’s report is to be welcomed. The debate on plastics is currently highly emotional and the more that can be done to quantify the scale of the problem and to point to solutions, the better,” Restorick says.

Intelligent planning

If we are to build ‘economies of the future’ based on circular principles, then there also needs to be strategic level waste planning which identifies future waste management needs and ensure there is sufficient sutiable land to build new facilities.

Victoria Manning, director at Vitaka Consulting, hopes the recent plastic furore will lead to a change in public perception of not just consumer habits but also waste management systems. She says: “Much of the system design to reduce landfill and increase recycling is a planning issue. For example, to ensure segregation of waste at source and effective collection of waste, there should be a planning policy to require new developments to have enough space to store separated materials ready for collection.

“Public attitudes to waste facilities is another barrier to increasing the number of facilities; however, a better awareness of the impact of plastics on the environment may make a nearby recycling or remanufacturing facility more acceptable to local residents.”

Manning therefore argues that when moving towards a circular economy, it will be necessary for waste planners to embed circular principles into the planning system and ensure the waste management system continues to improve.

Changes to our shelves

In an age of social media shaming, supermarkets have often been public enemy number one. Customers can now publicly name, shame and hashtag examples of excessive packaging and poor product design, meaning supermarkets have to be seen to be making constructive progress or they risk losing out in a fiercely competitive market.

Since the plastics debate began, plenty of the large chains have issued ambitious targets to clean up their product lines and reduce unrecyclable packaging. Although voluntary measures are encouraging, are they enough to make any real difference?

Iain Ferguson, Co-op environment manager, says: “Government should set the landscape for great voluntary action. If we are to make a dent in the issue of plastic waste then there needs to be greater collaboration and consultation between all stakeholders – retailers have come in for a lot of criticism, but in reality we can’t solve the problem in isolation.”

As for talks of bans on commonly littered items such as plastic straws and cotton buds, which would undoubtedly affect Co-op’s production lines, Ferguson prefers a more carrot and stick approach.

He says: “I really do feel that system penalties and incentives are much more effective than outright bans. A good example is the Eco-Emballage in France where a committee assesses the recyclability of packaging. If it’s recyclable, the company placing the product on the market gets a reduction in packaging tax.”

In the past six months, Co-op has announced a biodegradable tea-bag trial, a trial to test cloudy grey 50% RPET bottles and a planned network of reverse vending machines at UK festivals this summer.

Although often lambasted, it seems that major retailers are more than willing to play their part in the progression towards a circular economy.

The coverage that plastic pollution has received over the past six months has been nothing but remarkable. It has encouraged businesses to clean up their supply chains, government to make weighty policy announcements and offered a way for industry leaders to discuss other environmental issues that have long been ignored.

Yet this ought to be merely the start, with industry, the public and the UK market now directly responsible to make sure the conversations keep flowing.

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