Blue Planet II: One Year On

 In Blog

A year on from the Blue Planet programme, which brought the issue of marine plastic waste in to our living rooms, it’s worth taking some time to consider what has changed and whether ‘plastic tunnel vision’ is causing us to neglect other equally serious waste issues.

We’ve all seen a groundswell of news coverage and perceived public and private support for regulating and minimising single use plastics.  This has been supported by a wide range of brands such as Aldi and Lidl, who have all made commitments to improve packaging in order to protect their brand reputation and ultimately their sales.

The government has also been keen not to miss out on the party earmarking £61.4m[1] to fight plastic pollution and announcing plans to extend the Deposit Return Scheme originally announced in Scotland into England.

At Helistrat we have seen an increase in clients coming to us to understand what they can do to better manage the plastic waste they produce.  The issue of plastic is a challenging one because although the ideal is to ‘design it out’ and therefore prevent it arising, it is to a degree is unavoidable due to health and safety restrictions around on-the-go products, particularly food.  This interest led to the recent launch of our ‘Designing Out Disposables’ paper . This discussed the single use hierarchy and made recommendations for improved materials management going forward.

The spotlight being shone on plastics has also illuminated the need for more robust infrastructure in the UK to facilitate recycling and ultimately develop closed loop solutions where possible. For example, more retailers are now looking towards compostable or biodegradable consumables such as coffee cups, cutlery and bags to provide as alternatives to traditional plastics. Although these alternatives pose a positive step forwards, it’s imperative the infrastructure exists to process them properly.

With so many elements to the plastics problem and the heightened consumer and media awareness of the issue, its easy to get laser-focused on this challenge. It is also important that we take a step back and look more holistically about waste and the challenges we face. This brings me on to the potential for unintended consequences resulting from ‘plastic tunnel vision’ and whether this is causing us to overlook issues that potentially have a far greater potential for environmental impact.

Let’s take for example the recent global campaigns around plastic straws. UN figures show that of the approximately 9M tonnes of plastic that enters our oceans each year, straws make up about 2,000 tonnes or about 4% of the plastic waste by number of pieces[2]. This number isn’t insignificant and I’m not arguing that we should ignore it or not take up the mantle to limit plastic straw use, which is after all in most cases completely unnecessary.  Any consumer awareness campaigns that make people think harder about the disposable items they’re using is important and hopefully leads to wider shifts in behaviour. But I think it’s also worth remembering and addressing waste issues that may not have the same media profile but have the impact to make a significant impact.  Things like:

  • Do you have segregated bins where you work or at home?
  • Are they effectively labelled?
  • Do your colleagues and staff know how to use them?
  • Where is the segregated waste then going when picked up by a service provider?
  • Do you have total transparency over the movement of your waste?
  • Are kids in school learning about waste segregation and minimisation?
  • What partnerships or collaborations could be developed to educate the next generation on these issues?

These questions may not have the same headline generating capacity but they’re extremely important as they can further improve existing systems and, drive down landfill and energy from waste volumes and ultimately make more secondary resources available for use in more circular solutions.

The complexity of the problem is evident and there is clear need for the industry to continue to foster and invest in partnerships between retailers, suppliers, and processing facilities to try to create a more effective network. Whilst plastics are extremely important, and we need to continue to push for change, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the fundamentals that can also have a significant impact in the short and long-term.