Fierce fights they are... On the one hand we have old plastic industry players hailing the hygiene and use of more, new plastics in CoVid crisis times. On the other, we have environmental backers, virologists and governmental leaders stressing the environmental crisis as the absolute cause for all the misery we are in now.
I, for one, fail to see how upholding an ancient take-make-break value chain for single-use plastic will benefit us at all. If plastic is indeed such a valuable material, then why encourage using it only once? In these times, rearranging the plastics value chain should be an opportunity to be seized by many more.
Sure, some plastics are indeed ‘recyclable’ and their value could be captured this way. However, effective recyclability is often far from the truth, thus leading to poor availability of recycled plastics. At the same time, the incredibly low virgin oil prices do not reflect any true pricing at all. These recycling bottlenecks have only gotten worse lately instead of better. This means that there are likely even more used plastics being discarded into our ocean than the two garbage truckloads of plastics every minute that are officially stated. The terrible truth is this is a conservative estimate.
The ‘aura of cleanliness’ of virgin plastics has been cast aside, by Béa Johnson, the author of Zero Waste Home: “With disposables, you have no idea who has touched it. With your own reusables, you do!”. I agree with her. We see reusable packaging platforms booming as never before.
At the same time, some of our retailer clients tell us that their customers seem to prefer packaged goods. After having a closer look, it shows none of that is true. The actual crisis is acting as an accelerator, people want to test new business models, new ways of accessing products or services, and organizing themselves to have a bigger impact.
An even bigger mystery to me was the recent lobby from the EuPC (European Plastics Converters), calling upon the European Commission to postpone the Single-Use Plastics Directive. The EuPC argued that the European Commission does not take hygiene and safety into account and that they plan to ban essential plastic items such as gloves and masks when in reality, this Directive is about banning items such as plastic straws and cutlery. I would be amazed if blocking a ban on such products would prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
Thankfully, the European Commission was not impressed by the arguments. They stated that medical products are excluded from the Directive and that under the current circumstances, it is all the more important to reduce waste.
So what makes me so surprised at these behaviours?
Well, first of all, I thought all the signs were clear enough. We have seen 60% ! biodiversity loss over the last 50 years, breaking-records of heat waves, severe storms, mass coral bleaching, huge temperature rises, large-scale acidification and dead-zones in our natural environment. So if that doesn’t make people change their habits, what will?
Apparently, catastrophe needs to hit mankind before change can really happen. But then again, research studies show that even with all the CoVid-19 measures in place, as a planet, we will not stay below the 1.5 ºC rise in temperature. That is the limit needed and agreed upon in the Paris Agreement, in order to keep our blue planet a living one.
Secondly, I thought businesses had seen the business potential of a circular economy by now. Sustainable brands already show increased margins, as seen on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Research even shows there is 95% of economic potential of plastics we can tap into (the equivalent of € 75-110 billion annually) by keeping the material ‘in the loop’. A sweet number of 96% of CEOs indeed believe that the circular economy is important for their company's future success. Add to that the increasing consumer pressure for sustainable use of plastics, and upcoming governmental legislation, you would think all lights are on green to switch to sustainable production.
Indeed, some companies have been shifting. They want to remain relevant in the future, so they work on sustainability issues based on trust and brand consistency. When you talk to them, they tell you plastics with a purpose will be the new normal after the CoVid crisis. Nestle even stated: “If healthy societies depend on healthy environments why are we not doing more to prevent the continued destruction of natural habitats and minimise the overall impact we have on the natural environment, be this biodiversity, water quality, soil health or even the air we breathe?”.
It sounds dramatic, but we need the ocean to survive. It provides more than half of the oxygen we breathe and protects us from climate change by absorbing most of the CO2 that we emit. Protecting the sea is protecting the blue heart and lungs of our planet.
When the world emerges out of this crisis, consumers will have a renewed interest in protecting humanity against risks such as climate change and they will seek leadership in that fight from companies. Set yourself apart for the inevitable rebound. Now’s the time!
It is in these times, I am glad I run a company that is solely geared towards this purpose. Maybe I shouldn’t even worry about those Dinosaurs.. after all, we all know they went extinct.