4 opportunities for tackling problematic plastics in 2022

As part of edie’s Circular Economy Blueprint for Business report, representatives from leading organisations across the UK’s plastics value chain attended a bespoke roundtable in London to discuss the key challenges and opportunities in phasing out unsustainable plastics.

4 opportunities for tackling problematic plastics in 2022

Participants in the 90-minute discussion, hosted in association with phs Group, represented sectors including retail, consumer goods, hygeine and the public sector. To this latter point, professionals from government agencies and local authorities attended.

Here, edie rounds up four of the key opportunities identified during the roundtable.

1) Taking stock and refocusing

Speakers agreed that, after Blue Planet 2 aired in 2017, the groundswell of consumer demand for plastic-free products left many businesses “feeling that they needed to move for the sake of moving”. There was an appreciation for consumer engagement on sustainability – for the fact that consumers no longer needed to be persuaded. However, concerns were voiced that there was, at that point, little room for a more nuanced conversation with shoppers.

Participants discussed the need for strategies that not only enable plastics reduction, but consider the potential unintended consequences of alternative materials and of low or no-packaging formats. These could include increased lifecycle emissions or increased product waste. The ethics of increasing prices in the current socioeconomic climate must also be considered, particularly for essential items.

“Every brand has some sort of trial or initiative now, but for most, it still only encompasses a small portion of their production,” another speaker added. “There’s so much talk and we’re still, ultimately, making more plastic.”

2) Accelerating innovation

When businesses start being less reactive and more proactive in their approach to plastics, it was stated, they can have a greater material impact in both the short-term and the longer-term. There was an agreement that there is still much work to do in ending the circulation of easily avoidable plastics through a mix of removal and substitution.

Beyond these low-hanging fruits, speakers agreed that the landscape for investing in innovations – both in terms of materials science and in new business models – is now far more conducive than it was five years ago.

On the business model front, the past two years have proven challenging for implementing and scaling reuse due to lockdown restrictions. Yet investor interest has remained strong and consumers are keen to see action beyond the trial stage, it was agreed.

As for material innovations, there were lively discussions around the fact that biopolymers are “no longer science fiction”. Other innovations receiving public and private finance at scale, participants said, are chemical recycling innovations and watermarking systems to track and trace items across the waste management chain.

3) Reframing consumers as citizens

Behaviour change was one of the day’s key agenda items and perhaps the most enthusiastically discussed. Of course, stakeholders across the value chain need to be engaged, but the speakers were keen to focus on consumers.

“If you don’t make [the sustainable option] easy for consumers, they simply won’t choose it,” one participant argued, noting that the environmental imperative to act is often deprioritized when customers face inconveniences.

Another added: “Getting the right information to people isn’t the whole story. They also need to be motivated to change and have the right enabling environment to make that change a habit.” Summarising these points, a third speaker argued that “making the shift from marketing, from telling people what to do, to creating properly engaged communities… is one of the biggest things we can now do”.

How this shift could be brought about was debated at length. Some argued that people are inherently selfish and will want benefits for themselves, whether that’s through gamification or in the form of local investment and job creation. Others argued that now is a time in which people are seeking community connection and benefits. It was agreed that “starting with the idealism and then working back through the practicalities” could well bear fruit.

4) Pushing for policy clarity

If you gather a group of sustainability-minded professionals, there is a high likelihood of them airing their current woes relating to legislation, regulation and infrastructure.

There was a little of this at the event. One speaker called the current UK policy framework “a dangerous minefield that’s difficult to navigate”.

But complaining about different things with different voices, it was acknowledged, will unlikely be engaging for policymakers. Attendees concurred that 2022 is a prime time to collaborate across the plastics space and speak with policymakers in a unified manner, given the ongoing delays in consulting on – and implementing – initiatives first promised in 2018 in the Resources and Waste Strategy.

Speakers agreed on the need to promote the innovation, economic and social benefits of implementing key facets of the Strategy, like stronger Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) mandates and the nationwide deposit return scheme for drinks packaging. Case studies can be taken from other nations which have already made these changes, in order to speed up implementation.

As the discussion came to an end, ideas beyond the top-level Strategy were raised. They included an ‘SME Plastics Hub’, modelled on the climate version. Also supported was the idea of a multistakeholder government ‘council’ on plastics, much like there already is for aviation.

On this point, Martha Silcott, founder of Fab Little Bag and consultant on phs’ recent whitepaper Water Pollution – Less flushing, more discussing says: “Few of us equate plastic pollution with our periods, but the reality is that we are flushing 2.5m tampons and 1.4m pads down toilets in the UK on a daily basis. Most tampons and pads contains a surprising amount of plastic, from the wrappers to the strings and even a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part of the tampon, and of course.

“A lot of applicators as well as the pull-off backing on the pads. When we flush these items, we are flushing plastic, and this is because of period shame or poor facilities, and it must stop. We need to talk more openly about periods, and the disposal of whatever disposable products we use for the benefit of our waterways and beaches as well as ourselves.”

edie’s Circular Economy Blueprint for Business

In a world where net-zero is a non-optional necessity and the plastic soup plaguing our oceans expands, now is the time for businesses to reinvent business models, supply chains and products and services to contribute towards a zero-waste world.

While net-zero and the green recovery have rocketed up the corporate agenda in recent years, many businesses are still diligently performing to eradicate unnecessary single-use plastics from their value chains.

This report, sponsored by phs Group, will consider all the key steps that businesses should take to move towards a circular economy by focussing on unnecessary single-use plastics. As more nations and businesses commit to net-zero the report also acts as a timely reminder as to the role that phasing-out single-use plastics in favour of circular products and services can have in wider decarbonisation ambitions.

Click here to download the report.

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