World leaders seem to have been talking about the problem of plastic pollution without doing much about it for ages. It’s a bad case of all talk and no action. Now the EU is on the brink of introducing legislation which aims to deliver on the ambitions to keep plastic in the economy, and out of the waterways. Looking ahead to 2021 is bringing a glimmer of hope to us all for a number of different reasons.
Back in 2017 David Attenborough’s natural history series “A Blue Planet 2” raised global consciousness of plastic pollution. There was such a pronounced collective intake of breath from sofas around the world at the shocking imagery of our plastic choked oceans, that the show coined a term: The Blue Planet effect. Following its airing, public awareness of plastic leaking into the environment soared. We looked at our homes, and our shopping habits with a fresh pair of eyes and all came to the same conclusion. Plastic is everywhere and tackling plastic waste wasn’t going to be easy to fix. Where should we even start?
The BBC were early movers. The director general of the BBC was tuned in to the public’s mood saying he was “shocked” by the plastic waste he’d seen in the documentary. In 2018 he not only encouraged everyone to do their bit to tackle the problem, but he took action; removing single-use plastic cups from BBC sites, and putting measures in place to cut single-use plastic in the massive supply chain by adding new contract requirements. This seemed very promising. Except I didn’t work at the BBC. My plastic recycling bin was still overflowing.
Zero plastic waste shops started to spring up both in our cities and online as we all tried to find the solution. Investigating these places and trying some different products is fun, but embedding this into a weekly routine can be a challenge. Rather than do grocery shopping across several stores, it’s often easier to stop buying things you can do without, or switch to options which make less plastic waste. I took this step, and enjoyed the warm fuzzy feeling of doing something commendable for a few weeks. I even shared these discoveries with friends and family who were satisfyingly impressed. But this contentment was short-lived. The plastic recycling bin still overflowed and it was clear that in order to eliminate plastic, a significant change was needed.
As I considered my options, I looked around and saw my parent’s approach of growing their own fruit and veg and keeping a well-stocked freezer. This was clearly a great way to eliminate plastic packaging waste, and it was easy. A solution maybe, but it soon became clear that the switch to a green-fingered lifestyle was a step too far. It wasn’t just the thought of endless rhubarb dishes, I knew that spending hours in my postage-stamp-sized garden didn’t fit with my lifestyle, and wasn’t going to be a choice I was ready to make any time soon.
Talking to others it was a huge relief to discover that the waste hierarchy of refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle is second nature to future generations. Millennials are clued up about climate change and plastic pollution, and they’ll adapt their behaviour and buying choices faster than you can say “plant-based diet” if they think it’s a more sustainable option.
But I tell you what, millennials are pretty good at responsible choices, until I started engaging with their offspring. It’s clear that generation Z are fed up with all the talk. They want action. They are looking for brands to deliver sustainably, and they won’t accept green wash marketing. Generation Z are in their late teens and are making conscious consumerism a daily conversation within their family units. They are constantly looking for Greta approved choices in the family shopping basket, and they’ll make sure you know if you’ve got it wrong. They’re impatient for change, and when it comes along, they’re not shy about trying something new it promises to deliver sustainably. Give them a refill zone in a supermarket, and they won’t complain about the required behavioural change, they’ll embrace the chance to buy packaging free. Refillable drinks bottles are standard contents of “What I carry in my bag” videos on YouTube, and FOMO has a similar positive impact on the popularity of reusable coffee cups and straws.
So this is great right? Hmmm. Is anyone else still thinking about their overflowing plastic recycling bin and wondering how that’s going to change? It’s been 3 years since Blue Planet 2, and my personal plastic mountain hasn’t diminished half as much as I had hoped. Fear not! There’s hope on the horizon. The EU Circular Economy Action Plan has finally delivered something which will enable one of its ambitions to keep plastic in the economy and prevent it from becoming waste. The Single Use Plastic Directive was approved in June 2020, and lays out new requirements that will finally begin tackle plastic waste at the source. A number of Single Use Plastic items will be banned from July 2021 and plastic packaging producers, importers and retailers will have to implement changes to ensure plastic packaging both contains recycled content and can be recycled. Perhaps more significantly, the EU also passed a ruling to introduce a Plastic Tax which will be applied from January 2021.
It’s exciting to think about the level of change these drivers will bring about. Indeed some noticeable differences have already been implemented. City to Sea recently published a report called Food-to-Go which highlights what retailers in the take-away sector in the UK are doing to reduce single-use packaging, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation also released an Upstream Innovation Guide which provides practical solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. So there is plenty going on. It is however notable that big brands tend to trial changes in what they consider to be their less important markets. I’m still waiting for a certain fizzy drink brand to bring us their reusable bottles which have been available in Brazil for 2 years.
So, if you’re reading this as a business which produces or imports plastic packaging, and you know your stuff is filling up your customer’s waste bins, let me ask you one thing:
What’s holding you back?