Beyond ‘token’ items: What’s next for London’s war on plastics?

Some 18 months ago, Blue Planet 2 first aired, spurring an exponential growth in public action against plastics that has changed what business and policy leadership look like. But what's next on the road to an economy free from unnecessary plastics?

Beyond ‘token’ items: What’s next for London’s war on plastics?

(L-R): CWG's head of sustainability Martin Gettings; Refinitiv's head of sustainability Luke Manning; Morgan Stanley's vice president Dylan Bexley and Less Plastic's founder Amanda Keetley discuss the future of the war on plastics

That was one of the key topics for a panel at Canary Wharf Group (CWG) this month, held to mark the first anniversary of the property developer’s ‘Breaking the Plastic Habit’ campaign. CWG held the event to announce that it has removed more than two million single-use plastic items from its 16.5 million sq. ft estate since the start of the campaign, including one million plastic straws across 83 retailers.

This feat saw the firm qualify for Surfers Against Sewage’s (SAS) Plastic Free Communities status, which 530 cities, towns and villages are working towards, but which no other commercial centres have yet achieved. But while a stroll through the estate will give you the opportunity to refill your water bottle at a new fountain, dine at a plastic-free eatery or use an AI-powered app­ which rewards you for recycling, you’ll still be able to find items packaged in plastic at some of the facility’s 37 office buildings and 300 shops, cafés, bars and restaurants.

Introducing the panel event, CWG’s co-managing director Steve Grieg explained what the firm will work on next to go beyond SAS’s requirements for being “plastic free”.

“As we look to the future now that string foundations have been laid, our hope is to continue a programme to create systematic change,” Grieg said. “By looking deeper into consumption models and understanding how products are created and used across the estate, we will work much more closely with all our tenants and tackle this issue collectively.”

Grieg explained that while CWG has spoken to all its tenants about Breaking the Plastic Habit, 40 have shown a particular interest in driving progress within and outside of their organisations, by signing up as “trailblazers”. Two of these firms – investment giant Morgan Stanley and financial markets business Refinitiv – have gone one step further and become flagship partners, throwing significant investment behind the same aim as the trailblazers.

Refinitiv’s head of sustainability and strategic initiatives Luke Manning said that becoming a flagship partner has not only helped his firm keep a “consistent approach” in its attitude to plastics with its London landlord, but made the location “somewhere for all employees to look to for best-practice”. Given that the company has more than 20,000 staff across 100 location, this comment is not to be taken lightly.

“Saying that you’d want London to be plastic-free by 2020 is a pretty tall order,” Manning said. “So what this scheme proves, more than anything, is that you need to break the problem down into small chunks – whether that’s a commercial estate, street or borough – as a starting point.”

Partnerships and pledges

Manning’s sentiments were echoed by Canary Wharf Group’s head of sustainability Martin Gettings, who argued that collaboration could help the entirety of central London go ‘plastic-free’, as the city strives to become a place where circular economy models can “flourish”. This ambition was first set out by the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) in 2017 and has been backed with more than £50m in funding.

“Approaches to sustainability have to be personal, collective, global and legislative, and the key starting point is someone absolutely wanting it,” Gettings said.

“We might not be the biggest company, but what we do have are impact and presence. Working as the custodians as the estate, we can collaborate with tenants and visitors to make a difference, and I think that’s the way we’ve all got to start thinking about this challenge.”

Gettings admitted that having a “captive” audience of regular visitors and workers has made going ‘plastic-free’ easier for CWG simpler than for a large city but argued that companies “shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good” and should “set bold ambitions”.

This point was echoed by campaign group Less Plastic’s founder Amanda Keetley, who cited Sky’s success in cutting its single-use plastic footprint by 80%, by weight, since setting a 100% target. She claimed that the entertainment giant did not know how to go plastic-free when it set the aim, but that doing so gave it “the necessary sense of urgency” and spurred “progress that otherwise would not happen”.

Broader horizons

Keetley and the other panellists urged other companies to set similarly ambitious goals, arguing that consumers will no longer accept strong action on “commonly tokenised” items such as straws, drinks stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. Indeed, many green groups have argued that the UK Government’s 2020 ban on these items is not wide-reaching enough, given that between eight and 12 million tonnes of plastic are believed to seep into the oceans each year.

However, SAS’s chief executive Hugo Tagholm argued that an initial focus on these items has spurred an influx of awareness around a broader and more complex range of environmental and social issues.

“We are absolutely not going to solve this global issue by cutting just straws and coffee cups – but there is a lot of behavioural psychology showing that there are good spill-over effects from small positive changes that are made,” Tagholm said. “Charging for plastic bags, for example, inspires people to take more action because they start thinking about what broader journey they can go on.”

Morgan Stanley’s vice president Dylan Bexley agreed that action on “token” plastics could act as a gateway for broader actions, not only for individuals but for corporates also. He explained that, after a plastics reduction drive across its offices, Morgan Stanley recently launched a campaign aimed at leveraging capital at scale to remove plastics from the environment, and prevent them leaking into habitats in the first instance. Called The Plastic Waste Resolution scheme, the initiative is aiming to tackle 50 million tonnes of plastic waste using green bonds, public finance initiatives and supporting research.  

“On an operational basis, we’ve set internal targets and we know exactly what’s coming into the firm – but the Plastic Waste Resolution drives down into our business streams and really influences the way we do business,” Bexley concluded.

Policy boost

Summing up the panel’s points, it would seem the future of corporate plastics action is more collaborative, more ambitious and more wide-reaching than it has been to date. These opinions have notably also been expressed by the likes of Committee on Climate Change (CCC) chair Lord Deben, SC Johnson’s chief executive Herbert Fisk Johnson and A Plastic Planet’s co-founder Sian Sutherland.

And, according to SAS’s Tagholm, the policy landscape for this shift to happen is taking shape in the form of the Resources and Waste Strategy. The first update to the UK’s policy in this area in more than a decade, the Strategy will force plastic producers to pay full net-costs of disposal of packaging they place on the market – up from just 10% now. It also details plan for a national deposit return scheme for drinks containers and a unified recycling collection scheme for all local authorities.

The Strategy is currently undergoing a string of consultations with industry, academics and the general public and all measures are set to be implemented by the end of 2023. It is being coupled with a separate tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging which contains less than 30% recycled content from the Treasury.

But while these moves have broadly been welcomed by key members of the UK’s green economy, calls for policy to go further and faster – particularly across the fields of refill, recycling infrastructure and behaviour change – persist.

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Andy Kadir-Buxton says:

    Copying Nature’s Ability to Digest Plastic

    A team of Japanese scientists has found a species of bacteria that eats the type of plastic found in most disposable water bottles, and thus adds to the list of microbes that eat various plastics.

    The plastic found in water bottles is known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. It is also found in polyester clothing, frozen-dinner trays and blister packaging.

    Part of the appeal of PET is that it is lightweight, colorless and strong. However, it has also been notoriously resistant to being broken down by microbes -what experts call "biodegradation."

    Previous studies had found a few species of fungi can grow on PET, but until now, no one had found any microbes that can eat it.

    To find the plastic-eating bacterium described in the study, the Japanese research team from Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University collected 250 PET-contaminated samples including sediment, soil and wastewater from a plastic bottle recycling site.

    Next they screened the microbes living on the samples to see whether any of them were eating the PET and using it to grow. They originally found a consortium of bugs that appeared to break down a PET film, but they eventually discovered that just one of bacteria species was responsible for the PET degradation. They named it Ideonella sakainesis.

    Further tests in the lab revealed that it used two enzymes to break down the PET. After adhering to the PET surface, the bacteria secretes one enzyme onto the PET to generate an intermediate chemical. That chemical is then taken up by the cell, where another enzyme breaks it down even further, providing the bacteria with carbon and energy to grow.

    The researchers report that a community of Ideonella sakaiensis working this way could break down a thin film of PET over the course of six weeks if the temperature were held at a steady 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The various species of microbes that have been discovered within the degrading process of polyethene and nylon (both plastics) are as follows

    Moracella sp. (Bacteria),

    Pseudomonas sp. (Bacteria),

    Bacillus sp. (Bacteria),

    Diplococcus sp. (Bacteria),

    A. Niger (Fungi), A. Omatus (Fungi),

    A. Cremeus (Fungi),

    A. Candidus (Fungi)

    Yeast (Fungi).

    Other plastics are also digested.

    Aspergillus tubingensis, a fungus that can digest polyurethane

    Ideonella sakaiensis, a bacterium capable of breaking down PET

    Galleria mellonella, a caterpillar that can digest polyethylene

    It may well be that there are creatures that eat all of the types of plastic, we just have to find them.
    Much of these fungi can be located within moist environments. Specifically, there has been traces of many of these fungi living on the shores of beaches, as they have probably been washed up from a body of water, where a high concentration of bacterium have been found.

    Since these species of microbes have shown to be degrade plastic within the environment, they can have a significant positive impact on the emerging, evolving and growth of the population of various animals across the world.

    The larvae of the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella), can devour polyethylene, which along with the closely related polypropylene is the main type of plastic found in waste. But you would need billions of them to do it.

    It s possible that bacteria might, in fact, be responsible for the plastic-digesting ability of Galleria mellonella larvae. Another wax-eater, the Indian mealmot,h was found in 2014 to house bacteria in its digestive tract that can break down polyethylene. Galleria might prove to have such gut bacteria too. We must find out how the bacteria break down the plastic so that we can copy and concentrate it in the lab.

    It might not be desirable to breed large colonies of these species to eat our plastic because many would escape and potentially cause a lot of damage to the environment, but if we could work out the mechanism for their ability to eat plastic, and if we are able to duplicate and concentrate the method then we might be able to scale up our working model to an industrial scale that could deal with the threats that plastic poses for life on earth. Such an important and broad-ranging task should not be left to private industry, an intergovernmental body should oversee such work. Inventing plastic without inventing a safe way of disposing of it seems like having a war with no exit strategy, but this is where we find ourselves today. 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, most goes to landfill and takes 500 years to decompose, some is recycled (10% in the USA), and some is biodegradable (emitting greenhouse gas methane in the process).Being able to digest the plastic with concentrated enzymes would give mankind a fourth option, we should take it.

    Please see:

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