Futures Forum: What's your plastic footprint? ... “A one-use bottle is simply not a viable option for our business”
Futures Forum: There will soon be more plastic than fish in the sea
A piece in the Guardian from last year would caution against 'easy targets':
Is it fair to blame Coca-Cola and big corporations for our waste crisis?
When John Sauven, executive director at Greenpeace UK, heard a woman complain on the radio that supermarket croissants were cheaper to buy wrapped in plastic than paper, he was so startled he went straight to his local Co-op
“It was true,” Sauven said at a recent Guardian roundtable discussion on the future of waste. “If I bought two croissants in a brown paper bag, it was 79p [each], and if I bought them in a big plastic container it was 63p [each]. And I just thought ... this is a complete failure of the system.”
The failure, of course, goes far beyond croissants. From the 300,000 tonnes of clothing the UK sent to landfill last year to the 7m coffee cups we chuck out each day, the scale of our throwaway habits are startlingly clear.
So too are the impacts: images of bags and bottles washed up on beaches, or sea life tangled in plastic netting, give grim credence to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s now familiar prediction that the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
The role of business in addressing this crisis has become the subject of fierce debate in industry and policy circles. And that was clearly on show at a Guardian roundtable event, sponsored by recycling and resource management company Suez.
New business models needed
A key idea under discussion was the circular economy, a model that aims to keep resources in a perpetual, benign cycle, rather than send them to the dump after first use. While companies at the table, including Marks & Spencer and the Co-op, have publicly embraced the concept, Sauven argued that without greater ambition and more radical change from business, the circular economy risked becoming another buzzword.
“We need to make sure this doesn’t just replace sustainability ... and that we keep creating words which don’t actually mean very much in terms of substance,” Sauven said. “What we’re talking about is not just tinkering with the system, we’re talking about a much more systemic shift.”
A particular flashpoint for the roundtable was the release of a new packaging plan by Coca-Cola. The soft drinks giant has become emblematic of big business’s contribution to the waste problem thanks in part to a high profile campaign by Greenpeace, which claims the company generates more than 100bn plastic bottles a year.
Coca-Cola has promised to up the recycled content of its bottles to 50% by 2020 and research the impact of deposit return schemes (DRS), where consumers are asked to pay a refundable deposit on cans or bottles. It has also launched a campaign “to encourage people to recycle and dissuade littering”, said Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners.
“We know communication on recycling is really difficult, it tends to be quite factual ... there’s a bit more we think can be done to change behaviour, around making more of an emotional connection and explaining the benefits of recycling.”
For Carina Millstone, executive director at food waste campaign group Feedback, these pledges missed the true scope of the change needed to create a sustainable society. In fact, she argued, the resource-extractive, consumption-based business model of a global corporation such as Coca-Cola was fundamentally incompatible with the needs of the planet.
“The idea of driving public awareness, making it easier for people [to recycle], isn’t going to cut it ... Coca-Cola will not exist if we achieve sustainability. That’s the reality of it,” she said.
New business models that promote longevity and durability of goods are needed instead, argued Millstone. Such a transformation would require a “re-regionalisation of economies”, away from the low-cost globalised production model that has made it cheaper, for example, to buy a new pair of shoes than repair old ones, she said.
“Back in the day, we had cobblers all over the place. We don’t any more ... because the big companies that dominate and create our way of life have figured out it’s cheaper to manufacture shoes elsewhere, taking advantage of lax environmental regulation and poor resource use, and the relative cost of labour.”
Millstone is not alone in seeing a “local, vibrant economy” as key to solving an integrated set of resource and social challenges. Already, the UK is dotted with repair cafes, which provide tools, materials and advice to locals wanting to fix anything from bicycles to crockery.
Sophie Unwin, founder of Remade in Edinburgh, a social enterprise that teaches repair skills and sells refurbished computers and furniture, is part of this movement. As well as keeping goods out of landfill, her business has created 10 jobs over the past three years, she said.
The Library of Things lends goods to the community. It is one of a growing number of local schemes that promote a circular economy model. Photograph: Sebastian Wood
Meanwhile, Cat Fletcher, the Brighton-based director of online reuse network Freegle, has been working with artists and designers to turn hard-to-recycle goods such as office in-trays into new items like sunglasses and light fittings.
“There’s a great opportunity with hyper-local creativity,” said Fletcher. “It’s happening all over the world. There’s Precious Plastics who are making little machines, which you can literally have at home and reprocess your own plastic, and maybe turn it into fibre for a 3D printer, or mould it into pot plants.
“There’s an entire mall in Sweden which only has second-hand, upcycled goods ... There is unlimited potential in what you can do. It’s a matter of tapping into the existing people and helping them.”
Calls for government action
But can this community approach drive change fast enough? David Palmer-Jones, chief executive of Suez UK, which processes around 9m tonnes of waste per year, was doubtful. “What we fail to recognise is the scale,” he said. “Local initiatives are fantastic to show what can be done … [But] to get scale and get speed of change we require government intervention.”
While there were calls for the government to implement a compulsory, nationwide DRS, Iain Ferguson, environment manager at the Co-op, warned against clumsy, top-down solutions.
“Voluntary systems give you the opportunity to be flexible and innovative,” he said. “Badly designed mandatory schemes shut that down”. The correct approach would fuse the two and incorporate a system of rewards, he added.
For many around the table, better coordination at Westminster, where responsibility for waste falls between different departments, was essential. Phil Cumming, senior sustainability manager at M&S, pointed to Scotland – which has a dedicated agency, Zero Waste Scotland, to deliver the government’s circular economy strategy – as a more effective example.
Rauno Raal, chief executive of the organisation that runs Estonia’s hugely successful DRS, argued that his country also offered a useful lesson. Since 2005, Estonian customers have paid shops a deposit on a bottle of cola, for example, which they can reclaim as a discount on the next purchase if they return the empty bottle. Last year, 75% of cans and 87% of PET bottles were returned.
The scheme was only made possible, said Raal, by government action. “The discussion here is exactly the same as in Estonia 12 years ago. All the retailers were afraid, the producers were afraid ... everyone was fighting against the return scheme. The government asked all the producers and retailers to be at the table and said, very clearly, ‘OK, you don’t want a DRS, then we will do it as a governmental institution’.”
But if the government is key, so too are citizens, added Raal, saying that personal values – inculcated by family and teachers – were vital to changing consumption patterns and conserving resources.
Adam Lusby, lecturer in circular economy implementation at the University of Exeter, disagreed. Consumers – and consumption – were the wrong target, he said. “We don’t need to go on a big campaign to change people’s behaviour, we just need to change how we design stuff.”
That means better product design, but also a better designed economy, one which, as a first step, would tax non-renewable resources, such as the fossil fuels used to make plastic, rather than labour: “Instead of fighting over who does what, there are some good, healthy, macro economic decisions that can be made,” Lusby said.
- Oliver Balch (chair), journalist and author
- Jane Bevis, chair, OPRL
- Piotr Barczak, policy officer on waste, European Environmental Bureau
- Nick Brown, head of sustainability, Coca-Cola European Partners
- Phil Cumming, senior sustainability manager, Marks & Spencer
- Iain Ferguson, environment manager, the Co-op
- Cat Fletcher, co-founder and media director, Freegle
- Adam Lusby, lecturer in circular economy implementation, University of Exeter
- Carina Millstone, executive director, Feedback
- David Palmer-Jones, CEO, Suez recycling and recovery UK
- Rauno Raal, CEO, Pandipakend (Estonia)
- John Sauven, UK executive director, Greenpeace
- Sophie Unwin, director, The Edinburgh Remakery
- Ugo Vallauri, business development lead and co-founder, Re-start
Is it fair to blame Coca-Cola and big corporations for our waste crisis? | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian
However, a piece from this week would point to how the taxpayer is atcually paying for 'recycling' plastics:
Big business, not taxpayers, should pay to clean up plastic waste
Mon 5 Feb 2018 08.00 GMT
six-year-old boy, Harrison Forsyth, provided us with a much needed wake-up call last week. He called on the boss of Aldi to protect our oceans:
“Dear boss of Aldi, I have watched this programme called Blue Planet 2 and I have seen that the plastic in the sea is making the animals sick and die.
So please can you stop using plastic that you cannot recycle?”
Young Harrison is right to be concerned: the trapped turtles, dying birds and suffocating whales in BBC’s Blue Planet II show the damage that plastic is causing to our world. Millions of tonnes of plastics enter the oceans each year and the United Nations says that if current pollution rates continue, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050 – Harrison will be just 41 years-old.
Even though plastic is destroying our oceans, big corporations are being given money to produce cheap plastic. Taxpayers pay more than 90% of the cost of recycling, while huge subsidies are placed on fossil fuels, the major building block for plastic. This is unfair: we need to take bold action now.
Corporations should pay for the damage they cause. Only then will they be forced to create environmentally friendly alternatives. Fossil fuel companies received subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.7tn) worldwide in 2015, China alone provided subsidies of $2.3tn. As plastic is made out of fossil fuels, these are effectively colossal plastic subsidies.
Rather than being paid to pollute our waters, the polluters should pay for their plastic waste to be recycled. Currently that cost is covered by the taxpayer, but instead the cost of recycling should be part of the cost of the plastic itself – with the additional money being transferred to local governments to pay for recycling. The government should reward retailers who develop new sustainable ideas, and raise charges on packaging that is difficult to recycle. This would reduce the demand for deadly plastics among producers and retailers.
Michael Gove’s 25-year plan to reduce avoidable plastic waste by 2042 falls well short of the EU’s Strategy for Plastics which aims to do the same thing by 2030. We should not be lagging 12 years behind our EU neighbours. Gove claims to be “haunted” by Blue Planet, but he is bizarrely proposing leaving the plastic problem until he is 75 years old.
The government proposals fail to make manufacturers and retailers pay for the environmental and social costs of plastic. The government should change this to stop big corporations ruining our oceans.
Unrecyclable plastic has left the oceans in a critical condition. We need radical action. France is aiming to use 100% recyclable plastic by 2025, and we should aim to match them. A ban on fish-killing unrecyclable plastics should be a priority. The retailer Iceland has just promised to scrap plastic packaging on all of its own-branded products within five years; other supermarkets should be required to do the same.
The business costs of Brexit encourage companies to save money that should be invested in our environment. Last week the EU gave us a one-week ultimatum to comply with air quality laws. Our environment is at risk from Brexit so we need to make guarantees that EU environmental standards will be maintained in new trade deals outside of the EU.
We have an unconditional duty to protect the oceans for the sake of our children’s futures. If we want to save our turtles, birds and whales, we must take radical steps to tackle the plastic problem. This means incentivising business to reduce the use of plastic in favour of sustainable alternatives and banning unrecyclable plastic. If six-year-old Harrison can already see we need to take urgent action, then surely the time has come for brave and bold leadership to save our oceans.
- Geraint Davies is a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and the Labour member of parliament for Swansea West. He is the vice-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Protecting our Waves, who are currently running a campaign for plastic-free coastlines.
Big business, not taxpayers, should pay to clean up plastic waste | Geraint Davies | Environment | The Guardian