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Circular plastics

Our Director Debbie Hitchen’s reflections following The Crowd’s March event held in London, which this time focused on the issue of ocean plastic.

Plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050[1]. If you find that as appalling as I do, you’ll agree that it’s quite rightly time that the world puts the spotlight on this problem. I was privileged to chair a roundtable at this month’s The Crowd event, with all participants bringing vast and varied sector and industry-relevant experiences to the discussion.

With the focus on plastics brought about by the launch of the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into disposable drinks packaging[2], our discussion centered on where to go next. We considered who needs to be thinking differently about plastics, and what the next generation of ‘plastic circularity’ might actually look like. I’ve distilled out a few themes which ran through our discussion; themes which you’ll likely agree are not just specific to addressing ocean plastic, but also to the wider challenges we must overcome in relation to circularity:

Create a value for the product. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure. The solution to reducing plastic waste from arising, and therefore from entering the oceans, is to prevent it being generated in the first place. Our table thought strongly that the solution to this could be through creating a value for the product (i.e. establishing a market for plastic, the secondary commodity), communicating that value up and down supply chains so that consumers are aware that plastics should not be discarded, and investing in the right infrastructure to give consumers the option to do the right thing. Easier said than done, we appreciate, especially when recycled plastic is forced to compete with its cheaper, virgin raw material alternatives in the market place. Plastic waste is an issue which already resonates with consumers – plastic bottles and single use plastic items have long been a subject of debate – but in this discussion we were able to focus on some possible solutions to realising the material value. One of the ideas we discussed was the role of deposit schemes for plastic packaging (bottles) to help consumers to understand the value of plastics. Such a bottle deposit return scheme is being trialled in Scotland at the moment with backing from Coca Cola[3], and similar programs are already in place across much of Europe[4]. While such initiatives are shown to increase plastic/glass recovery rates and hence reduce the amount of such materials ending up in the ocean, the challenge is how to improve them further by moving towards a system that maximises safe reuse/refilling of receptacles.

No organization is an island, entire of itself. We agreed that collaboration is core to successful reduction in plastic waste, and the table participants demonstrated that there’s such a great willingness for it too.

Of course, this collaboration needs to come in many shapes and sizes to develop solutions. As different UK and international businesses adopt and trial different plastic strategies, development of a free, ‘go-to’ platform was suggested as one information sharing option that could better enable shared learning internationally, helping move everyone in the right direction, and benchmark themselves against commercial peers.

Other collaboration projects are also important – especially those which address plastic recycling and social needs in tandem. A prime example is the work of Net-Works – an organization empowering local communities in the developing world to collect and sell discarded fishing nets, which are recycled into yarn to make Interface carpet tiles. Members of the roundtable discussion were very interested in the opportunity to address social and environmental issues in parallel.

Stand up to the challenge. All organizations and individuals have a role to play in reducing the amount of plastic vortexing in the ocean, and we all need to step up to the mark. In particular, the table agreed that there was a strong leadership role for packaging manufacturers and brands who use plastics (particularly bottles) to play in helping drive the demand for recycled content alternatives through the power of procurement processes. Alongside this, both policy and commercial players have an equal role to play in driving change, while we also considered how to get investors to think longer term – some are considering investments in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, but there are many types of investors who are just beginning to include CSR criteria in investment decision making.

What do you think? How is your organization thinking about the problem of plastic? What are you doing differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts; you can contact me by emailing Debbie.Hitchen@anthesisgroup.com., or alternatively, fill out our short form below.

Anthesis is sponsoring all of The Crowd’s events during 2017. View notes from all roundtables at the ocean plastics event.

Take a look at our two page guide on embracing circular principles in your own operations.


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[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/12108522/More-plastic-than-fish-in-the-oceans-by-2050-report-warns.html

[2] https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/news-parliament-2015/disposable-packaging-coffee-cups-plastic-bottles-inquiry-launch-16-17/

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-39055909

[4] https://www.zerowasteeurope.eu/tag/germany-deposit-refund-system/

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