by GK Strategy 15th March, 2018
3 min read

Don’t demonise plastics – why the new anti-plastics campaigns repeat dangerous sustainability mistakes of the past

Sky’s PassOnPlastic campaign is superb. It’s compelling and memorable and should achieve its aim of encouraging consumers to avoid single-use plastics. It builds on the moving images of plastic pollution watched by millions of viewers of Blue Planet II. It’s another photogenic but disturbing tale of humanity’s despoiling of Eden.

But it and many other anti-plastics campaigns and groups, such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition, risk repeating lots of mistakes – typically from demonising particular commodities or technologies – that have led to bad policies and often counterproductive consumer and corporate practices.

For example, the demonisation of diesel, accompanied by new and complex taxes, has led diesel sales to drop by one third, despite the latest ‘Euro 6’ rated diesels being almost as clean as the latest petrol cars. Diesel cars are also much more economical and produce less CO2 than most petrol cars.

Similarly, coal is demonised and divested from, which takes away from the need for carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and so-called HELE (high efficiency, low emissions) plants. These are the best way to reduce air pollution from coal power plants in developing countries that can otherwise only afford coal and continue to suffer from millions of death per year from indoor air pollution.

Many environmental activists now recognise that demonising nuclear and GMO was a mistake. Mark Lynas, a prominent writer and campaigner, alongside fellow signatories of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, now embrace GMO and nuclear on the basis that they offer the best available alternative to other solutions that they believe are not as scalable, economical or as environmentally beneficial.

Making large scale, lasting sustainability impacts are dependent on governments, companies and consumers choosing the best available option. The best available option is rarely a perfect one. Trade-offs have to be made. And our decisions – especially at a policy level, where bad decisions can take years to reverse – need to reflect a good understanding of these trade-offs.

But the complex world of trade-offs is rarely amenable to simple slogans or hashtags. Behavioural science and decades of marketing analysis shows that consumers change their behaviour in response to simple, binary propositions. So how should a company or politician or campaigner deal with this complex world responsibly?

Firstly, as one speaker at the PRCA’s event this week, Plastic – The new evil (regrettably without a question mark), put it: companies should avoid acting too quickly and jumping on the bandwagon by rushing out with just one plastic-free product line. It is better to look across an entire value chain and see how single-use plastic can be reduced.

Secondly, it is essential to focus on the best available alternatives. As the Sky speaker at the event said, they discovered lots of situations (such as some types of packaging) where alternative solutions are either not available or scalable. But Sky hardly uses any plastic compared to the manufacturers of cars or medical equipment, where plastics are often essential and there are no viable alternatives. Switching out plastics for steel, for example, would have a massive impact on emissions, as iron and steel production is the biggest industrial source of CO2 emissions. Sustainability agendas are often set by companies that can most easily adapt to new sustainability issues, rather than those with the biggest impacts.

Thirdly, companies and campaigners should follow standard sustainability best practice and take a risk-prioritised approach. If single-use plastics is one of your company’s biggest environmental impacts, then do of course campaign on it and engage employees, consumers and others. If it is not, then focus your efforts on where you have a much bigger impact; for food retailers or manufacturers, for example, the impact of overfishing and fertiliser run-off are worthy of focus, with The Economistrecently reported as having UN-calculated social and environmental impacts of $50bn and $200-800bn a year.

Finally, it is important to recognise that leadership is not just about riding waves of consumer or political sentiment but educating consumers and other stakeholders – sometimes in ways that may run counter to existing sentiment. In the case of plastics, that might mean pointing out why single use plastics might be the best option now and for the foreseeable future.

Just 9% of the world’s plastics waste since the 1950s has been recycled. It needs to be much more. But the history of environmental campaigning shows that zig-zagging between issues and policy or technological preferences has typically not resulted in good environmental outcomes.

Plastics have transformed society – but not the environment – for the better. Their disposal and recycling presents a discrete set of problems that requires targeted solutions, from better plastics and packaging solutions to government policies. Responses to the UK Government consultation on single-use plastics – launched this week – should reflect this. There is no need for demonisation.

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