It's time to turn off the tap
Greenpeace recently tweeted, 'If your bath was overflowing you wouldn't immediately reach for the mop - you'd turn off the tap'. In this instance, they were referring to the spiralling impact of single-use plastics but in truth, this statement holds true for pretty much any type of waste, as Richard Gillies explains.
When David Attenborough turned the spotlight onto the issue of plastics in our oceans back in 2017, our attention was immediately focused on how we could manage this problem. Improved capture of material for recycling, however, can never be more than a sticking plaster and even the more progressive initiatives such as deposit return schemes or reverse vending won’t enable us to win the war on waste. To do this we are going to have to ’design out’ this material from the products we consume and their associated supply chains.
Whilst there certainly needs to be changes in business processes and manufacturing techniques, winning the hearts and minds of consumers is equally important. As businesses, we have a responsibility to demonstrate that we are committed to change. So, if for example, you are planning on installing a drink vending machine in your office, why not choose one that only dispenses drinks and not plastic bottles or cans letting the consumer use their own glass or reusable bottle. As much as these are practical steps, they are also symbolic actions which can be tremendously powerful in helping initiate and support behavioural change.
Some people might argue that we already have the answer. As most of you will have seen Defra recently published it's Waste & Resources Strategy for England (although understandably you’ve probably not read it cover to cover). The document identifies a number of areas where governmental attention will be focused, and it would be hard to take issue with the vast majority of these initiatives. In addition, it also lays out a comprehensive timetable of events. As a result, it is likely to be relatively easy for businesses to adopt a waste management plan that ensures compliance. This compliance-based strategy, however, comes with its own significant risks.
The businesses most affected by changing consumer demands following Blue Planet, such as those in the retail or hospitality sectors, for example, were not managing their waste in a non-complaint manner. The issue for these businesses was that almost overnight the consumer radically moved the goalposts.
As a result of trying to meet these consumer demands as quickly as possible, and minimise any further brand or financial damage, many businesses ended up with suboptimal solutions which typify the ‘do less bad’ ethos as opposed to the more sustainable ‘do more good’ which should underpin business purpose. At best these were inefficient and only treated the symptoms but, in some cases, they have resulted in other significant environmental impacts. The fact that these consequential impacts are not associated with plastic means that they are not currently impacting upon the consumers’ conscience and we are prepared to overlook them for now.
Whilst environmental compliance must always be a basic standard to which all businesses should adhere to the reality is that this alone will not be enough to protect them from the next Blue Planet type event. Businesses not already doing so, should challenge themselves, their supply chains and services providers with developing resource management plans that seek to manage waste at source and turn off the tap. Currently, the emphasis of action remains focused on the commercials rather than a meaningful balance between commercial and environmental impacts.
Too many producers remain focussed on the cost of recycling in a monotonous drive to reduce costs in a world where actual costs are only ever going up. This clearly, is not a sustainable approach and businesses must begin measuring their environmental footprint as well as their commercial in equal measure. There is a certain logic here that dictates that the only sustainable way to reduce the cost of recycling is to consume less and generate less potential waste – there’s something very circular about these arguments which are ironically prophetic given the linear models of consumption that got us here in the first place. Development of these increasingly sustainable and resource efficient businesses models will realise long term commercial benefits and help position the brand more favourably with current and future consumers.
Richard Gillies is senior sustainability advisor at HelistratHelistrat