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by Martin Summers 27th September, 2018

8 steps to change the issues around plastic – Part 1

What companies can learn from the success of the plastics campaigns

The campaigns against non-recyclable, single use plastic have been incredibly successful, and their momentum continues. Governments and companies are now embracing ambitious commitments. This movement offers lessons for all companies, whether they have plastics in their value chain or not.

The plastic campaign’s tactics and measures provide valuable lessons on how to help drive regulatory, corporate and consumer change. These lessons are also valuable in areas outside of plastics.

At a recent event organised by our head of ESG, Martin Summers, speakers from Greenpeace and Veolia – alongside the creator of the campaign Sky’s Ocean Rescue, Victoria Page, – discussed what these lessons are.

What made the campaigns so successful?

These campaigns have appealed far beyond the traditional ‘Guardian-reading’ stereotype of natural audiences for environmental campaigns and cause marketing.

Some of that success may be because the impacts are more tangible and distressingly memorable (as the Blue Planet TV series showed). The causal links are visible and immediate compared to other sustainability issues, such as greenhouse gases and deforestation.

The focus on everyday consumer items (coffee cups, straws, packaging) was another reason for success. It allows relatively low cost switching by consumers and retailers, such as replacing disposable takeaway cups with your own reusable, takeaway mug.

What needs to be done next?

In this two-part article we explain eight different steps we think need to be taken to drive lasting change and manage the issues around plastics properly. Find out below the first four steps. —

  1. Education

Consumers need to be educated that many everyday plastics are in fact ‘good plastics’ – for example, water bottles can be readily recycled, but recycling rates of plastic bottles are less than 60% (57% – up from 1% in 2001). This is despite the plastics campaigns being clear about eliminating single use, non-recyclable plastics.

Consumer behaviour is, however, easier to understand when one considers that many local authorities have different and often confusing recycling requirements (a recent BBC analysis showed there are 39 different instructions on what can be recycled.) Furthermore, these requirements are not stable, and have changed again in the light of China’s refusal to take a lot of waste for recycling. (It imported nine million tonnes of plastic waste annually at its peak.) Recycling is not always as easy as it seems.

  1. Clearer Policy environments at national and local level

The above point illustrates the need for much clearer policy environments at national and local level. This need has been made very clear in the light of the immense drop in new diesel car sales – even though the latest diesel cars don’t create the air pollution of older diesels.

A complex policy environment, coupled with tax changes and a suspicion among consumers about car companies following the VW Dieselgate scandal, has meant that more consumers are keeping older cars and not buying new, much more environmentally friendly ones. We are witnessing similar behaviour in recycling, with consumers mistakenly not recycling newer, ‘good’ plastics – driven in part by confusion about local requirements.

  1. Create the right incentives

This also clarifies the need create the right incentives for long term markets in recycled plastics.

Many items can be recycled, but aren’t in practice, for several reasons. The huge growth in the types and combinations of plastics in things such as packaging means that impurities can be high. Therefore, they are unattractive to recycling companies and potential customers (who increasingly want very high levels of purity in their recycled material).

Companies should be encouraged to limit the types and combinations of plastics they use, so that there is a much larger and more readily recyclable market for plastics.

  1. Avoid superficially appealing alternatives to conventional plastic

Companies and consumers also need to avoid superficially appealing alternatives to conventional plastics. Plant-based rather than oil-based plastic items still present the same problems in the ocean. Similarly, compostable plastics are a great advance in many ways but must be disposed of carefully: the UK lacks the facilities and history to do widespread domestic and commercial composting. And, as with biofuels, a growth in plant-based plastics could take land out of food production.

The success we have seen recently with the plastics campaigns offers lessons for companies that have other sustainability issues to address such as identify the key risks in terms of the negative impacts of operations and value chain. Come back next week where we will go through the last four points discussed at the event to change the issues around plastic.

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