8 steps to change the issues around plastic – Part 2

What companies can learn from the success of the plastic campaigns

There has been incredible success and continuing momentum of campaigns against non-recyclable, single use plastic. Even governments and companies are embracing these ambitious commitments. This movement offers lessons for all companies, whether they have plastics in their value chain or not.

This makes for demonstrable and measurable commitments by consumers and companies. It also allows campaigning groups (like Greenpeace, with its call for supermarkets to set targets and publish data), government and sustainability analysts to hold companies to account.

The focus on non-recyclable and single use plastics (i.e. largely plastic packaging and replaceable items like microbeads and straws) – rather than all plastics (such as plastic used in construction or furniture) – has had two other benefits. The entire category hasn’t been vilified, so there is greater scope to build alliances, such as the UK Plastics Pact, with plastics and packaging manufacturers. Also, it has meant that consumers and companies have been directed to realistic and targeted changes in behaviour and policy, rather than being overwhelmed by blanket ‘ditch all plastic’ messages.

What needs to be done next?

In the first part of this article, we examined what needed to be done next in 4 different steps (read first part here) such as education and the need to create the right incentives.
In this second part, we investigate four more steps we think need to be taken to drive lasting change and manage the issues around plastics properly. We also look at wider lessons for companies for other sustainability issues.

  1. Improve the infrastructure for recycling

Differences in local authority instructions to residents reflect national variations in the existence of facilities to recycle particular types of material.

But a bigger problem lies in the bulk recycling of material. This is especially an issue in the developing world and South East Asia. The absence of facilities and effective enforcement of laws in such countries can result in local and exported waste materials (including that intended for recycling) simply being dumped at land or sea.

  1. Corporate visibility

This problem highlights the need for corporate visibility of what happens a long way down in highly sub-contracted supply chains.

The principle of knowing your supply chain – and its risks – is now firmly embedded in debates around labour. This has been driven by the UK Modern Slavery Act and similar initiatives worldwide. It should be extended to issues around the recycling and disposal of waste as well.

Companies, governments and consumers should no longer feel it is acceptable to simply pass the problem down the line, without being clear about what happens across the length of those supply lines, including final disposal or recycling. Some organisations have sold waste to companies for recycling overseas, only for it to be dumped at land or sea, in the absence of proper checks.

However, more recycling alone cannot be regarded as the silver bullet. Increasing plastic use, alongside a growing population and greater resource constraints, as well as challenges regarding waste infrastructure globally, mean that shifting to reduction and reuse are crucial. Recycling alone cannot deal with the scale of the challenge we face.

  1. Understanding the impact on human health

The impacts on human health also need to be understood far better. The impacts on ocean life are far better known but we lack the data to properly manage plastics in the ocean in terms of their impact on human health.

  1. Developing policy reform agendas

Finally, policy reform agendas need to be developed and advocated by the private sector as well as campaigners. Many of the structural problems with recycling and waste can only be solved with significant changes in public and private sector provision. This would require more recycling sites (and hence planning permission), and better incentives and market frameworks to create viable and growing markets for the supply and processing of recyclable plastics.

In conclusion, what wider lessons can companies learn from the success of the plastics campaigns? We have identified a few lessons these campaigns offer to companies that have other sustainability issues to address:

  • Identify the key risks in terms of the negative impacts of your operations and value chain
  • Don’t be tempted just to pursue and promote progress on only the low hanging fruit at the expense of your biggest impacts
  • Set, publish and explain your targets to the public, suppliers and civil society
  • Be prepared to demand change from suppliers and provide support on this journey
  • Drive change by using vivid examples that illustrate direct connections between cause and impact. Tangible and specific beats abstract and aggregate every time when it comes to inspiring change
  • Achieve visibility of your supply chain. Ensure you know where your worst impacts are and how they can be addressed – by you, your business partners, governments or consumers
  • Pursue policy agendas and work with alliances that can help drive and support tax and regulatory frameworks that promote lasting change

 

As we have shown throughout this article, there has been a lot of change happening with the recent plastics campaigns. The success we have seen from these campaigns offers lessons for companies and makes us think of what steps need to be taken to create deep and lasting change. At GK Strategy, we have a lot of experience in ESG policies as well as unrivalled political, policy and regulatory risk analysis for UK and international investors. We have worked on developing many organisations’ responses to policy reform amongst other issues and we would be more than happy to share our expertise.
You can either contact Martin, our head of ESG, at martin@gkstrategy.com or sign up to our newsletter to stay informed on the latest ESG developments.

See more articles by Martin Summers