The plastic issue
Blue Planet II caused a backlash against single-use plastic but recycling is not currently the simple solution that some imagine
When Sir David Attenborough concluded his BBC Blue Planet II television series with a plea to help save the planet from being drowned in plastic, a debate that had previously fallen upon largely deaf ears suddenly gained resonance. Attenborough’s narration concerned the most heart-rending footage of the series, depicting a baby albatross killed by a plastic tooth pick that it had been fed by its mother, who had mistaken it for healthy food.
‘It is now clear that our actions are having a significant impact on the world’s oceans,’ Sir David told viewers. ‘They are under threat as never before in human history… Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of all life now depends on us.’
It was not a new message but the voice of Britain’s preeminent naturalist icon was enough. Suddenly plastic recycling, hardly a new issue, took centre stage as the global news media spread Sir David’s agenda. The Guardian promptly revealed that Britain’s leading supermarkets create almost one million tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year.
Global plastics production has increased from 15 million tonnes a year in the 1960s to more than 300 million tonnes a year today – a figure that is expected to triple by 2050
Retailers, water companies, government departments and recycling firms were forced to respond, giving new momentum to an issue that some observers predict could now become as dominant as the carbon-reduction efforts to mitigate climate change.
Niall Dunne, chief executive of plastics recycling innovator Polymateria, says: ‘The awareness now, following Blue Planet II, is as high as I have ever seen. It has engaged the hearts and minds of the public.’ Some recyclers even feel the issue is getting out of hand.
‘Everyone is now baying for blood in terms of trying to get rid of plastic,’ adds Adrian Griffiths, chief executive of Swindon-based Recycling Technologies.
The issue is stark and the figures are well-documented. According to The New Plastic Economy, a 2014 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, global plastics production has increased from 15 million tonnes a year in the 1960s to more than 300 million tonnes a year today – a figure that is expected to triple by 2050. After a short first-use cycle, the report states, 95 per cent of plastic packaging by value – an estimated $80 billion to $120 billion a year – is lost to the economy with 32 per cent of plastic packaging escaping collection systems. As these statistics suggest, however, the problem is highly complex.
‘While the degrees of awareness and advocacy are incredibly high, the solutions that can scale up quickly to tackle this issue are either poorly understood or few and far between,’ says Dunne, who joined Polymateria in November after seven years as chief sustainability officer of BT Group. ‘People are focusing on the oceans but, out of the 200 million tonnes of plastic produced globally every year, only eight million tonnes is winding its way into the oceans.
‘It’s coming from ten rivers in the world, eight of which are in Asia, but a much bigger issue is all the fugitive plastic that’s winding up on land. That hasn’t yet received the same amount of attention.’ Griffiths meanwhile believes that plastic packaging waste is a problem that the world does not currently have the capacity to solve. ‘The reality is that we don’t have anything like the capacity we need in Britain just to recycle our own plastic packaging waste,’ he says. ‘People make excuses about what should or shouldn’t be recycled but we use five million tonnes of plastic packaging a year in the UK but only have the capacity to recycle 350,000 tonnes a year – only seven per cent of what we currently use.
‘Britain talks about recycling a million tonnes of plastic a year but two-thirds of that simply goes on ships. It used to go to China until China stopped receiving it recently but it is still going to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. We call it recycling but they don’t even have the infrastructure to recycle their own material, let alone ours.’ The European Union meanwhile recycles 7.7 million tonnes of plastic a year. Yet the EU makes 62 million tonnes of plastic a year and only recycles three million tonnes a year in Europe, sending the other 4.7 million tonnes to the Far East.
‘The plastics industry has used PR too much,’ says Griffiths. ‘Consumers feel cheated because when they put out their waste, they’re told it’s being recycled but the spin has got far ahead of where the capacity is at and the situation is woeful. What we have to do is build capacity quickly to recycle all plastics.’
We use five million tonnes of plastic packaging a year in the UK but only have the capacity to recycle 350,000 tonnes a year
There are many different approaches. Polymateria, based at Imperial College, London, is focused on the redesign of polymers so that they decompost naturally and hopes to begin production this year at a plant in Canada. The technology currently works on hard polyethylene and polyurethane such as those used in plant pots, as well as soft plastics like the films on top of salad containers.
Polymateria is also working on a similar solution for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and biobase polylactic acid (PLA) plastic made from cassava starch and corn. However, these types of plastic account for only five to ten million tonnes of the plastic waste problem. Recycling Technologies, meanwhile, has developed technology that it claims can return all types of plastic packaging to oil and wax, that can then be used to make new plastic.
‘We can recycle any of the plastics that are in the packaging world and we will shortly be able to handle the plastics in the automotive and construction sects as well,’ says Griffiths. ‘All plastics are basically recyclable but what is not in place yet is capacity to do it.’ Sir David’s intervention however, may prompt an increased willingness to invest in solutions.
Victoria Page, founder of Victoria Page Communications and chair of the PRCA’s CSR and sustainability group, says: ‘For all its convenience, the tide has finally turned as we begin to understand and appreciate the damage it’s causing to our precious ecosystems. Plastic is now on a par with carbon in terms of an environmental catastrophe and it demands urgent action. Unlike carbon, there’s no counter-argument. It is visible, it is damaging and it is highly emotive.’
The Government and the business community are responding. In January, the UK Government set out a 25-year plan for plastic, including an expansion of the successful plastic bag charging scheme, and investigating the introduction of a deposit return system for plastic bottles, similar to what happens in Germany and Norway. Scotland has moved to ban plastic straws by the end of 2019, following on from its announcement outlawing the sale and manufacturing of plastic cotton buds in the country after these emerged as the most prevalent waste items found on beaches.
And even the Queen is doing her part, with the announcement that glass bottles will replace plastic equivalents in meetings and on-site cafes in Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Britain talks about recycling a million tonnes of plastic a year but two-thirds of that simply goes on ships
At a global level, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include a commitment to protect the world’s oceans. Large companies are launching their own initiatives too. Broadcaster Sky, for example, has announced a £25 million innovation to tackle single-use plastic, pledging to eliminate all such material from its supply chain over the next two years. The Eurostar train service has pledged to reduce its use of plastics by 50 per cent by 2020, including the millions of plastic bottles handed to passengers each year.
Britain’s water industry last month announced a new scheme allowing people to refill water bottles for free in tens of thousands of locations across England, including coffee shops, high street retailers and local authority sites. The initiative estimates that this will reduce the use of of plastic bottles by ‘tens of millions’ a year. Costa Coffee has already signed up as a partner, while 13 towns and cities in the UK have so far backed the scheme. City to Sea, the organisation behind the ‘Refill’ scheme, estimates that only about half of the 38.5 million plastic bottles used in the UK every day are recycled, with 16 million ending up in landfill, being burned or entering the environment and waterways.
Emma Staples, media team manager at Anglian Water, a member of the initiative, says: ‘Anglia Water stands against all wastefulness and Refill is a fantastic initiative we’re proud to support. It’s vital that we address the plastic problem blighting our planet and reduce plastics directly at their source.’
In the supermarkets sector, Iceland last month became the first to pledge to remove all plastic packaging from its own-label products, promising to do this by 2023. Waitrose has pledged to scrap black plastic, which cannot be recycled, from its own label fresh produce by the end of the year. It has already removed 65 per cent of black plastic from its fruit and vegetable packaging, and has pledged to remove it from all products by the end of next year.
Head of sustainability and responsible sourcing Tor Harris explains: ‘Tackling the use of plastics across our business is a key priority for us and we have committed that all our packaging will be widely recycled, reusable or home compostable by 2025. Our work to eliminate black plastic packaging from our shops sees us taking a step towards accomplishing this.’
Asda has pledged to remove plastic ‘wherever’ it can, and reduce the amount in its own brand packaging by ten per cent by the end of the year. It is also switching 2.4 million straws used in its cafes to paper plus introducing reusable drinks cups by the end of next year. And Morrisons, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have all vowed to scrap five pence plastic bags.
Iceland’s action, according to director of corporate affairs Keith Hann, was decided upon a year before Blue Planet II aired, prompted by the environmental concerns of Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland Food Warehouse and a keen surfer and longstanding Greenpeace supporter.
This is fundamentally about good business practice, identifying what the customer values and coming up with new and better ways to protect that value
‘It very much came from Richard’s interest in the marine environment and was decided upon well before Blue Planet II,’ says Hann. ‘What Blue Planet has done is make it much easier to get a huge amount of PR out of it because it shunted plastics right to the top of the public’s agenda. We were telling people exactly what they wanted to hear and there’s been no negative response to what we’ve announced, other than a rather muted one from the British Plastics Federation, which is what one might expect.
‘We did it to make a statement and put the first stake in the ground, saying that we think this can be done. We think we can do it within five years. We produce 100 million frozen meals in black plastic trays a year. We’re confident that we can replace all those with paper-based trays by the end of this year. But there will be some other things that are going to be jolly difficult where the technology needs to catch up to enable us to do it. One of the reasons for making the announcement was to encourage other people to join us.’
That’s exactly what is happening now as organisations seize the opportunity to not only protect their brands but engage their customers.
‘Businesses need to understand the issues that matter to people and where they can have most impact,’ says Becky Willan, founder of brand purpose agency Given London. ‘By getting ahead of these issues, brands will be able to own the consumer agenda more. This is fundamentally about good business practice, identifying what the customer values and coming up with new and better ways to protect that value.
‘There is therefore a race going on in business research and development departments all over the world to crack innovative solutions to packaging and product formulation and being able to deliver this at scale.’
Whether these initiatives will be sufficient to make sizeable inroads on the problem that Sir David Attenborough has highlighted is unclear. However, the momentum he has given this movement is almost priceless in PR terms. Companies affected by this issue now have no excuses for not knowing which way the environmental wind is blowing.