Last month I attended an Innovation Forum on how business can tackle ocean plastic pollution – a two-day multi-stakeholder forum where businesses, government, innovators and NGOs came together to discuss and debate the most important issues and collaborate in an effort to improve practices and work to end ocean plastic.
Attendees and speakers included Greenpeace, Plastic Pollution Coalition, UPSTREAM, Ocean Conservancy, WRAP, Zero Waste Europe, Ikea, Sky, Surfdome, HP and many more. The event was held under The Chatham House rule of confidentiality to promote open, honest exchange of views and ideas, so I won’t quote anyone directly.
Here are some of the main insights I took away from the event:
- Global plastic production is growing exponentially and is set to double over the next few decades, particularly single-use plastic
- Meanwhile, knowledge about the extent of plastic pollution in our environment, and its adverse effects on ecosystems and human health is also growing – for example it was revealed that plastic microfibres have been discovered everywhere we look, it is even in the air we breathe, and in our drinking water (both bottled and tap)
- Concern about the ocean plastic crisis and aversion to excessive plastic packaging and single-use plastics span the political spectrum, and socio-economic groups. Young consumers, in particular, expect companies to be sustainable
- Ocean plastic is a growing disaster, and tackling it has unprecedented support from consumers of all nationalities and from all walks of life, who are calling for business and government to urgently take steps to significantly reduce plastic pollution, and turn off the tap of plastic pollution
- Many big names, such as David Attenborough, are using their influence to urge us to cut back our use of plastic to protect the health of our oceans
“We have a responsibility, every one of us. We may think we live a long way from the oceans, but we don’t. What we do here… has a direct effect on the oceans – and what the oceans do then reflects back on us.” – Sir David Attenborough
- Companies are also working out that they have a responsibility to act, and in fact, can make great strides quickly because businesses act and report on a quarterly basis
- What’s more, there are savings to be made too. When we re-think processes, plastic can often be simply removed altogether which is a cost saving, or plastic waste can be reused, and be made useful at low or no cost
- With potential ‘polluter pays’ legislation on the horizon, forward-thinking companies are looking to proactively eliminate single-use plastic (e.g. Sky’s commitment to do this by 2020)
- We can be optimistic that innovators are flocking to try to solve the ocean plastic issue, although some innovations are more helpful than others
- The evidence I heard didn’t convince me that bio-plastics/compostable plastics offer truly helpful solutions. They bring many issues of their own, including widespread confusion among customers about which waste stream they go in (this is currently true in the UK, although it works better in some places), and a belief that they are harmless if they end up in the environment (they aren’t)
- Plus, compostable plastic designed for single-use purposes doesn’t address the core issue of how unsustainable it is to be a throw-away society (not a good use of energy, labour, land, water, transport, etc. if it is to be used for a matter of minutes)
- The most promising innovations propose disruptive solutions, such as designing products and packaging for REUSE
“We need disruptive innovation to challenge how we deliver goods & services. We need to focus on REFUSE, REDUCE and REUSE – we can’t simply RECYCLE our way out of the ocean plastic crisis”
- The emerging trend of upcycling ocean plastic into products and packaging is great for raising awareness of the ocean plastic crisis and preventing more virgin plastic from being used, but it does not provide a lasting solution
- A more useful focus is to choose alternatives to single-use plastic – REFUSE, REDUCE and REUSE – and increase RECYCLE rates of quality plastic in a closed-loop economy
- Current plastic recycling systems do not work sufficiently well – only 9% is captured globally
- From Jan 2018, China will be rejecting all plastic waste ‘recycling’ from developed countries. The ‘Plastic China’ film exposed that the majority was of very poor quality, and was only able to be dumped in piles or burned, causing social and health impacts due to contaminated air and water
“There is no away…”
- It is hoped that this will be a wake-up call that developed countries can’t continue to dump plastic waste on developing countries
- Disposable plastic is a design fault that must be corrected before it is manufactured, to eliminated waste issues
- For closed loop recycling to work we need standardised materials across industries, and deposit return schemes to capture pristine plastic that is food-safe and can therefore be more easily recycled
- Deposit return schemes could work on packaging, and even reusable to-go items – capturing them for REUSE or RECYCLING – saving businesses money as well as drastically reducing plastic waste
- Some business models may shift to leasing agreements (e.g. furniture) where they take the product back at ‘end of life’ to repair/reuse/repurpose/recycle into a new product rather than it becoming waste
- Some really amazing examples from around the world were shared to inspire us to creatively re-think how we deliver goods and services, such as India’s lunch box system in Mumbai, Germany’s reusable coffee cup scheme in Freiburg, and the US reusable go box in Portland. These schemes create jobs and provide a more valuable service than the ‘convenience’ of disposable plastic
“Plastic pollution is a design choice. We need to design single-use plastic out of products and packaging”
I came away from the event optimistic that there is a genuine desire among the majority of individuals, businesses, NGOs and government departments to tackle the ocean plastic issue and look at ways to reduce plastic waste.
The key challenge is to reach agreement on the most effective and impactful solutions, and to translate the ideas and intentions into meaningful action very quickly, as ocean plastic pollution is accumulating daily.
To dive deeper on this subject, I recommend reading about the Ellen MacArthur Foundation‘s work, in particular, their New Plastics Economy – an ambitious, three-year initiative to build momentum towards a plastics system that works, applying the principles of the circular economy, rethinking and redesigning the future of plastics.
If you run a business and would like to explore reducing your plastic usage and waste, we can help. Find out more here – use less plastic for business success.