In promoting his new blockbuster BBC show Blue Planet II, naturalist Sir David Attenborough has publicly joined
those campaigning to prevent plastic ending up in the oceans. Attenborough wants individuals to take action by simply reducing their use and purchasing of products in single-use plastic.
But given plastic’s ubiquitous use, consumer-led solutions will take a long time to get real traction.
There is some government action to push things along. There is the EU’s voluntary Ecolabel
scheme, which has extended its criteria, particularly for companies selling soaps or detergents. It now restricts the use of microplastics, the tiny pieces of material commonly used in face scrubs, for example, which are ingested by marine life and passed along the food chain.
The UK is going a step further and will be banning such plastics from cosmetic products manufactured from January 2018, and their sale from June 2018.
But the seemingly piecemeal approach in the context of such a huge challenge has prompted calls for urgent wider action, whether legislative or not, that would ban the use of microplastics altogether and also, crucially, drastically cut other plastic packaging use across the board.
For Will MacCullum, head of oceans at Greenpeace, governments need to “start taking seriously circular economy goals and focusing on single use products to either ban or place a tax on them”. Many NGOs agree that putting pressure on businesses to root out the causes of plastic pollution at source is the way forward, regardless of how difficult manufacturers and retailers find it to source suitably robust and safe packaging material alternatives.
Where such pressure has been effective is in encouraging collective commitment-making. Pointing to the work of the Dame Ellen McArthur Foundation in bringing businesses together to make joint commitments on dealing more effectively with plastic waste, Adam Hall, head of sustainability at online sportswear seller Surfdome, argues that the more businesses can do outside of government intervention the better. “Getting more and more groups and organisations forcing the agenda outside of government is going to be key,” he says.
Meanwhile, Kirstie McIntyre, director for HP’s global sustainability operations, says it’s not just policy initiatives or regulatory control that can drive out plastic waste from supply chains. “About 40% of our revenues come from supplying to public sector and government agencies,” she says. “If governments could work out their own procurement criteria, we could make a huge shift through market forces and purchasing power.”
It is predicted that by the middle of the 21st century, more plastic will be in our oceans than fish; clearly something has got to give. A collaborative approach from business will no doubt help to create a level playing field, but whether that is aided by government intervention remains to be seen.
However, proving that old ideas aren’t always bad ideas, a simple yet somewhat retro solution is to go back to having bottles that have deposits, repayable on their return. Rather than for glass, as in the past, going forward this could be applied to plastic. And it might be more effective than a straight tax.
The world’s biggest soft drinks business, Coca-Cola, one of many in the sector subject to NGO criticism for not doing more to stop packaging washing up on beaches around the world, has changed its position, now arguing in favour of a UK scheme for plastic bottles with a deposit that is returned when customers bring back their empties, principally to boost recycling rates, and hence material that can be reused for new bottles.
The UK has a current plastic bottle recycling rate of 57% or so. In Denmark, which has a deposit scheme in operation, rates are over 90%. A deposit scheme requires national and local government intervention to make it work effectively of course. But with corporate support, and when it’s easy for consumers, then it is a proven solution that works.
If more simple yet innovative and effective answers can be found then perhaps there will be some better news for Sir David when he comes to make Blue Planet III.