A Plastic Planet: It’s time for activism on climate change and plastics to collide

EXCLUSIVE: The surge in climate activism in recent months has not served to stop the so-called "war-on-plastics", but to lay the foundations for holistic action on both issues by businesses and the public alike, activist and entrepreneur Sian Sutherland has argued.

A Plastic Planet: It’s time for activism on climate change and plastics to collide

A Plastic Planet campaigns against what it calls the “misuse” of plastic by industries such as food & drink and health & beauty 

It has been said that if 2017 and 2018 were the years of the ‘Blue Planet effect’, 2019 was the year of climate activism. Last year saw School Strikes for Climate expand rapidly, from a one-woman protest from Greta Thunberg to a global phenomenon. At the same time, demonstrations from groups such as Extinction Rebellion grew in scale and frequency, off the back of the IPCC’s landmark report on climate change in October 2018.

The impact on businesses and policy has been tangible. On the latter, national net-zero policies now cover around 40% of GDP globally. And, on the former, participation in schemes such as the Science-Based Targets initiative, RE100 and CDP have boomed.  

Amid this fast-moving climate context, edie asked Sutherland, who co-founded NGO A Plastic Planet in 2017, where the plastics agenda has ended up and how its position may change in 2020.

The conversation notably came shortly after a report from the Green Alliance arguing that some single-use alternatives to plastics, such as wood-based or aluminium products, can have higher carbon footprints than their plastic counterparts.

“At the moment, one of the reasons not to change is the argument that plastic has a higher carbon footprint – yet all the lifecycle analyses I’ve seen for plastics exclude the impact of pulling its raw components out of the ground as fossil fuels, or where it’s going to end up – which, most of the time, is polluting nature,” Sutherland said.

“I think 2020 will be the year when the connection between plastics and the climate crisis will become widely evident… Plastic is an enabler of hyper-consumption, and hyper-consumption has led to the climate crisis.”

From single-use society to refill revolution?

Sutherland was keen to point out, however, that simply switching from plastic packaging to an alternative material will not, in itself, combat overconsumption.

“Even though some materials aren’t ideal, they’re a stepping-stone away from a material we know is a disaster for nature,” she elaborated.

“There has been a big shift in awareness at every level – from industry right down to the individual shopper – about the consequences of switching from one material to another. This is going to have a seismic influence on how we manufacture in the future, from the very beginning of the design phase.”

For Sutherland, the trend in 2020 will not be towards reinventing single-use packaging and products using innovative materials, but towards scaling up refill and reuse. 2019 saw a few large-scale projects in this space emerge, including TerraCycle’s Loop platform and Waitrose & Partners’ ‘Unpacked’ offering. Other businesses, such as The Body Shop and Marks & Spencer, have also launched smaller-scale reuse offerings in recent times. Simultaneously, business participation in City to Sea’s Refill campaign, which aims to make water bottle reuse the new norm in all major UK towns and cities, has boomed.

“If we can somehow marry the rise of refill with models that mean we don’t have to give up convenience, we’re onto a winner,” Sutherland said, citing a lack of policy mechanisms which would improve the business case for refill and reuse, coupled with conceptions that these models are “old-fashioned, as current barriers to upscaling.

“Smart businesses want to be part of future solutions rather than maintaining the status quo…. I think there will be many versions of TerraCycle’s Loop emerging in the next five years.”

Time for delivery

Looking to the near future, the business appetite for reinventing refill is tangible. Big-name corporations including Sainsbury’s, The Estee Lauder Companies and Asos are all developing reusable packaging solutions separately from Loop, while the platform itself is garnering support at a rate of one business per day.

But, as Sutherland explains, the business community is not yet placed to rest on its laurels. Despite an increase in business pledges around plastic recyclability and reduction, the amount of plastics produced, littered and incinerated globally is forecast to rise “dramatically” by 2030 – a trend which WWF has attributed to the prevalence of lobbying from the fossil fuel and ‘big plastics’ industries.  Such lobbying, WWF claims, has led to businesses, national governments and NGOs alike placing the onus on individual consumers rather than actors with larger impacts – and Sutherland agrees.

But she does not agree with the view that individual consumers have the least power in the sustainability discussion.

“If you are a smaller, challenger brand coming to market right now – you’d be mad to launch in plastic; that’s the power the public has had,” she said.

“The smaller brands, as ever, will lead the change. It’s the big brands that need to step up the pace now; this is where there has been a huge number of pacts, pledges and promises and actually very little change. What we need now are more actions and fewer words.”

While praising the uptick in plastic pledges among corporates, Sutherland ultimately concluded that ten-year timelines for targets are “not ambitious enough”,  given the speed of progress in both materials and systems innovation – and in policy (such as the ban on plastic waste exports and the Resources and Waste Strategy) – in recent months.

And for businesses working to shorter timelines, such as Unilever, Sutherland believes she is not alone on wanting proof of delivery as soon as possible.

“What we need now are more actions and less words,” she concluded. “In five years, we will see businesses really starting to suffer if they haven’t acted fast enough, because the public simply won’t stand for reliance on rhetoric rather than action.”  

The statistics to back up Sutherland’s claims are ample. Standout survey headlines from 2019 include “82% of UK shoppers say the amount of plastic packaging on food and drink needs to be drastically reduced”; “nine in ten UK shoppers can’t name a manufacturer which is delivering on plastic sustainability targets”; “half would pay more for plastic-free packaging”.

Moreover, with humanity now consuming as many natural resources as Earth can produce in a year within less than seven months, consumer pressure is likely not to be the only plastics pinch point businesses will feel in the coming years.

edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Week: How to get involved 

Running from 13-17 January, edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Week includes exclusive interviews, podcasts, reports, webinars and in-depth feature articles – all dedicated to turning the tide on single-use plastics. 

You can find a full list of the exclusive content which edie will be bringing you as part of the campaign, run in association withe Nestle, by clicking here.

A Plastic Planet at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020

A Plastic Planet’s co-founder Sian Sutherland will be appearing at day two of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020, to deliver a workshop on designing and implementing plastics solutions which deliver notable and rapid reductions. 

During the two-day event at London’s Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February, some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability will gather to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.

The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Tom Szaky, TerraCycle CEO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO plus directors and senior managers from Interface, Vattenfall, John Lewis, Taylor Wimpey, Aviva, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit: https://event.edie.net/forum/

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    The problem of domestic plastic waste disposal has two elements. The first is to persuade house holders to separate their plastic waste into a separate container, and secondly to oblige the waste disposal companies to separate this into true waste and recyclable products. This may be made mandatory
    There are, however some 39 companies, and little if any option to bury the non-recyclable material. Government policy is, however to put the realisation of such activity into private hands, indeed it is mandatory. This is totally unreal since the most profitable operations will be chosen, having a maximum return on investment, cherry picking, in fact.
    If this hurdle can be overcome, I would suggest that items such as the familiar milk bottle (HDLE), and the clear drinks bottle (PET) should be all be recycled. Products of indefinite or mixed composition, are most easily burned to generate power.
    The drafting of whole policy should be include staff with the relevant scientific knowledge and experience, qualifications absent from the upper echelons of Government, and sparse in business circles
    Strong science oriented action is required.

    Richard Phillips

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