Bold targets and lifecycle assessments: Experts outline key drivers to combat single-use plastics

The Q&A is available to watch on-demand

Sky’s group head of inspirational business and Sky Ocean Rescue Fiona Ball, Nestlé UK & Ireland’s head of sustainability Anna Turrel and Internet Fusion / Surfdome’s head of sustainability Adam Hall all recently took part in edie’s Q&A event on single-use plastics (16 January). You can watch the Q&A on-demand here.

During the event, the three speakers outlined the steps that businesses should take, and the mindset they should adopt, in order to combat problematic single-use plastics (SUPs) in a way that would limit any “unintended consequences”.

With a pre-audience survey of almost 300 sustainability and resource professionals revealing that more than 59% hadn’t set public targets around SUPs, Sky’s Fiona Ball noted the transformative impact of setting bold, public targets.

“There’s a real opportunity to be transformative in this area,” Ball said. “We set really hard targets because we felt we needed to look at this very differently, rather than setting incremental targets.”

The broadcaster launched its Sky Ocean Rescue campaign in 2017 to inspire and educate people on the health of the ocean, with a big focus on plastics. Shortly after this launch, Sky announced that all single-use plastics will be removed from its products, operations and supply chain by 2020 and that it will also invest £25m into an Ocean Rescue Innovation Fund to develop remedies to the amount of waste seeping into oceans.

Ball noted that the public target made the entire value chain aware of what was expected, which made it easier to engage with other businesses and stakeholders. Already, Sky has eliminated 300 tonnes of SUPs from the business.

Once the goal was set and announced, Ball revealed that defining a terminology on what SUPs meant for the business was crucial in uncovering areas of action and also areas where other solutions weren’t yet viable.

“This journey isn’t easy, and you need to define your terminology on SUPs really early on,” Ball added. “It’s important that the process in which you eliminate, or if an alternative is needed, you’re aware of the impact. There’s a lot on the market that says they’re biodegradable, for example, but still generate microplastics. You need to use lifecycle assessments and understand the wider environmental impacts.

“It’s a really important first step for any businesses; there are some really tricky alternatives. Its key to set policy and an approach, and we probably underestimated this when we started.”

Lifecycle considerations

Lifecycle assessments were a key talking point of the Q&A.

new report from the Green Alliance has shown the companies are under “considerable and justified pressure” to move away from single-use plastics, often at the expense of carbon impacts and recyclability of alternative materials.

Companies such as Sky, Carlsberg, Nestlé and McDonalds all use lifecycle analysis to some extent, but there is concern amongst businesses that a lack of an “agreed methodology” for assessing material impacts was causing confusion as to whether plastics would function better than glass or paper in some cases.

Online retailer Surfdome’s Adam Hall noted that the terminology around SUPs wasn’t as important as how any material is used across its lifecycle.

“Whether its SUP or not, it’s more about where this material ends up – the terminology can be arbitrary and it is more about the lifecycle impacts,” Hall said. “It’s quite simplistic for us because our policy is around packaging.

“It shifts the focus to what happens to the product regardless of how many times it is used. It’s looking at materials and how we use them and tackling them all regardless of what we do with them. It’s about looking at the broader view.”

Hall referenced the Centre for International Environmental Law’s (CIEL) Plastic and Climate report, which found that in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred megawatt coal power plants.

“Using renewable energy sources can reduce the energy emissions associated with plastic but will not address the significant process emissions from plastic production, nor will it stop the emissions from plastic waste and pollution,” the report states.

“Worse, low-ambition strategies and false solutions (such as bio-based and biodegradable plastic) fail to address, or potentially worsen, the lifecycle greenhouse gas impacts of plastic and may exacerbate other environmental and health impacts.”

Hall noted that businesses worrying too much about the carbon impact of switching to materials like paper – provided it doesn’t contribute to deforestation – can mitigate it through broader sustainability initiatives like procuring renewable energy.

The climate conversation

In fact, there are growing calls for businesses to stop viewing plastics as an isolated part of the CSR spectrum and instead focus on how responses can also help combat climate change.

Nestlé’s – sponsors for the online event – ambition is to make all of its packaging either recyclable or reusable by 2025, a target that was set publicly in 2018. The company’s Anna Turrell echoed growing calls for plastics to become a more ingrained part of the climate debate.

“Part of the challenge is while we’re talking about plastics and packaging and their impact on the environment, actually, there’s a much bigger umbrella that it sits under which is climate,” Turrell said. “We have to make sure that any new business models we create that we don’t have a more negative impact on the environment.

“We’ve been using lifecycle assessments for many years and we have a robust eco-design process. It’s brilliant, but it is leading us to a place where we lightweight certain materials – which creates more problems at the point of recycling. We’ve taken a lot of learnings and we’re applying this to our alternative material solutions for our packaging.”

Last week, Nestlé committed £1.59bn to source food-grade recycled plastics to be used in its packaging, alongside a pledge to cut the amount of virgin plastics it sources by a third. This target will need to overcome the problematic issue of policy, which can be “stringent and restrictive” for food and beverage companies due to food safety regulations.

The new investment includes a £200m sustainable packaging venture to fund start-up companies with innovative packaging solutions and Turrell claimed that businesses needed to have an “open mind” as new materials and solutions entered the market.

One point that was made clear by all three speakers, was the need to be bold and immediate with actions to phase-out SUPs.

“Businesses can operate quarter-to-quarter,” Surfdome’s Hall added. “This creates a fantastic opportunity to turn our ships around. Businesses should be leading policy and policy won’t change if they feel it inhibits business.”

Turrell and Ball agreed with this point, with the latter noting that businesses can “be the changemaker” when it comes to accelerating actions to protect the environment and combat climate change.

You can watch the Q&A debate, along with the rest of edie’s online plastics event, here.

Matt Mace

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