Plastics - global enemy number one

19th of November 2018
Plastics - global enemy number one

Once our flexible friend, plastic is now global public enemy number one. We are told we must cut back on its use in every area of our lives if we are to save the oceans, and that includes in the workplace. Hartley Milner reports on how SMEs can strike a powerful blow in the fight against plastic pollution.

Who could forget those pitiful scenes flashed across our TV screens showing seals, turtles and seabirds entangled in rafts of deadly plastic waste? The footage from the BBC’s Blue Planet II series caused a public outcry worldwide with governments pledging urgent action to clean up our oceans.

The task will be huge. It is difficult to identify exactly how much plastic is in the oceans due to it breaking down into micro-particles and the amounts that have sunk to the bottom. But scientists estimate that eight million metric tons enter our seas each year, on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate the planet.

Plastic has been found in more than 60 per cent of all seabirds and in 100 per cent of turtle species that mistake it for food. When animals ingest plastic, it can cause life-threatening problems… and there is evidence it is starting to endanger our health too. In less than 10 years, scientists predict there will be 250 million metric tons of it floating around out there and by 2050 there will be more plastic in our seas than there are fish.

Sir David Attenborough, presenter of Blue Planet II, said at the series launch: “We may think we live a long way from the oceans but we don’t. What we actually do here has a direct effect on the oceans and what the oceans do then reflects back on us. It is one world. And it’s in our care. For the first time in the history of humanity, for the first time in 500 million years, one species has the future in the palm of its hands. I just hope we realise that this is the case.”

Consumers around the world are rejecting single-use plastics and pledging to live more sustainably. The European Union is doing its bit by drafting proposals to ban many commonplace plastic items, including straws, cotton buds, cutlery, balloon sticks and drink stirrers. The EU wants 55 per cent of all plastic to be recycled by 2030 and for member states to reduce plastic bag use per person from 90 a year to 40 by 2026. It has also set a target of having almost all plastic bottles collected for recycling by 2025.

Businesses cannot afford to ignore the consumer backlash either and many industries are drawing up plans to phase out single-use plastics, use more recycled plastic in their packaging and come up with more effective methods of recycling.

Corporate commitments

Swiss food giant Nestlé and rival Unilever have pledged to make all their plastic packaging 100 per cent recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. Drinks giant Coca-Cola, which uses around 120 billion bottles a year, says it will recycle a used bottle or can for every new one sold by 2030.

McDonald’s has committed to making all its packaging from renewable and recyclable sources by 2025. Starbucks says it will get rid of single-use plastic straws from all its stores by 2020. The coffee giant is also trialling a 5p paper cup charge at all 950 of its coffee houses in the UK. And Volvo says that by 2025 at least 25 per cent of plastics used in new vehicles will be made from recycled materials.

Big-name companies might be leading the way on plastics, but smaller businesses have an equally vital role to play, according to Dean Cambridge, sustainable business engagement manager at the World Wildlife Fund. But where do you start? What can your business do, particularly if you
are not large enough to call on an in-house environmental team to make change happen?

Cambridge offers the following eight top tips towards creating a plastic-free zone.

Top tips

• Undertake a simple audit. Take a look around your office or warehouse and you might see some obvious examples of single-use or disposable plastics that can be phased out. Are you still using plastic cups at your tea and water points? Consider investing in some drinking glasses or ask your staff to bring in their own reusable mug or water bottle. You could even use it as an employee engagement opportunity and buy them a sustainably sourced branded bottle. It’s good for a business when its people are proud of their employer for doing the right thing.

• Clean up your catering. Does your staff canteen give away disposable plastic cutlery and straws? In 2018, this ugly stuff is looking increasingly behind the times. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives, whether it’s paper straws, good old-fashioned reusable knives and forks or even compostable crockery. Maybe your canteen could take a cue from the big coffee chains now offering a discount to customers who bring in their own reusable cup.

• Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. Ask yourself the following about each example of single-use plastic in your business… do we really need this? Could we buy a more environmentally friendly alternative or use something that contains no (or less) plastic? Could this have a useful life after fulfilling its original purpose? Can it be recycled?

• Look in every corner of your business. You might be surprised at how wasteful some parts of your operations are. Don’t forget to check with your brand or marketing teams to make sure there aren’t any pointless plastic giveaways being handed out at conferences or in the street. There are plenty of branded merchandise companies now offering sustainable alternatives that might also have a longer shelf life with your target audience.

• Challenge your supply chain. Does the stuff you buy into the business come swathed in bubble wrap or nestled in polystyrene? Tell your suppliers you’re phasing out disposable plastics and challenge them to offer alternatives. State your plastic pledges in your environmental policy and publish it on your website to show you’re committed.

• Reimagine your packaging. Are you passing an unnecessary plastic burden onto your customers? Think of innovative ways to design plastic out of your packaging or find a sustainable replacement.

Evaluate and communicate

• Think circular. If you find some plastic is, for now, unavoidable, make it easy for your staff and customers to recycle or return it to you for reuse. People want to do their bit, but it’s not always obvious what can be recycled and how. They’ll value your guidance and that’s good for your brand.

• Evaluate and communicate. Make a note of how much plastic waste you were creating at the beginning of your journey, set ambitious targets (could you even set a date by which your business will be single-use plastic-free?), and keep track of your progress. Showing colleagues the impact of your efforts will keep them motivated and create the space for you to go further. And customers will be impressed if you can show you’re taking meaningful action against the plastic pollution crisis.

Express it in inspiring ways. For example, how many tonnes of waste have you saved in a year and how many killer whales weigh the same as this?

“And if you manage to do all of that, keep going,” Cambridge urges. “Plastics aren’t the end of the story when it comes to our throwaway culture. If you can tackle single-use plastic you can tackle single-use anything. Ultimately, no economy can prosper on a trashed planet and there are huge business opportunities in becoming leaner and treading more lightly on the Earth.”

Sustainable alternatives

A light footfall in all she does was a founding principle for UK entrepreneur Emma Heathcote-James when she launched the Little Soap Company to sell her range of high-end organic products in 2008. From the start, she shunned traditional plastic shrink-wrap for her bar soap range that now comprises 90 per cent of her sales and opted instead to use recyclable cardboard packaging or biodegradable waxed paper.

Where plastic bottles are used, for her liquid hand soaps, bubble bath lotions and shower gels, Emma sources sustainable alternatives to singe-use plastic bottles that are dumped in landfill and can take up to 1,000 years to break down. And she ensured her products were free of polluting plastic microbeads long before the British government acted to ban their use in cosmetics and personal care products earlier this year.

“I have always been into organics and trying to save the planet in my own little way,” Heathcote-James said. “I am very much of the mind that businesses need to be responsible and produce their products in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner. Using alternatives to harmful plastics can be more expensive, but it is not just about profit margins for me; it is about doing things properly. We know from feedback that customers appreciate our efforts and I am convinced our light-touch approach is contributing to our success… our sales are simply going up and up!”


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