Breaking the plastics habit: The changing role of business in achieving a circular economy

Between increasing consumer pressures and sluggish policy changes, corporates are being stretched to their limits to tackle the plastics problem - but it is critical that this sudden step-change in awareness of the issue does not lead to unintended consequences, as edie's Matt Mace investigates.

Just over a year ago, on World Environment Day 2017, Canary Wharf Group (CWG) surveyed staff and customers across its 97-acre estate to vote for the biggest environment issues they would like to see tackled. Twelve months on, CWG has launched the ‘Breaking the Plastic Habit’ sustainability programme. No prizes for guessing the top answer to that survey.

Breaking the Plastic Habit is year-long scheme to pilot new technologies, innovations and behavioural change approaches that could help to remove the need for single-use plastics. With a working population of around 1,200 people across 37 office buildings and more than 300 shops, cafés, bars and restaurants, CWG’s positioning as a ‘micro-city’ creates the perfect opportunity to scale-up these solutions which could lead to large-scale transformations in this critical area for the circular economy.

“The best place to start the journey [to combat plastics] is where people live: our cities,” explains CWG’s co-managing director of retail, Steve Greig. “As a property developer, we’re uniquely placed to lend a ‘micro-city’ perspective.”

Greig is speaking at a Breaking the Plastics Habit industry event convened by CWG within its iconic One Canada Square skyscraper. The purpose of the event, which brings together sustainability professionals from a spread of retail and packaging firms, is to “showcase the opportunity for radical collaboration, where we can push boundaries to help solve the plastic crisis,” Greig says.

CWG is keen to begin pushing those boundaries itself, with the event marking the launch of the new #3Weeks campaign to remove single-use plastic straws across the Canary Wharf estate. Through the campaign, restaurants, bars and coffee shops on the estate – including the likes of Pret A Manger and Wagamama – are banned from serving single-use straws during a three-week period. Because, according to behavioural research, it takes an average of just three weeks to permanently change a habit. Watch this space.

Representing CWG on the panel discussion at this event is the Group’s energy and environment lead Lugano Kapembwa, who explains that the “micro-city” philosophy adopted by the business has itself helped to shine a light on the challenges businesses face around managing plastics waste.

“We’re stuck between being reactive to this growing agenda and to the pressures that tenants have placed on them by their own corporate officers,” Kapembwa says. “Making sure we can make the process as easy as possible, but also looking at the whole picture and a more measured approach, is vital.

“When we implement something, it has an impact on tenants that goes beyond the immediate estate. The audit of views and opinions [from last year’s survey] was really insightful; segregation, convenience of infrastructure and messaging and communication all play a part for us.”

Poles-apart policy

CWG is one of an ever-increasing number of UK businesses that are showing a growing appetite to lead on the plastics issue (and indeed across a number of other key areas, according to the Group’s latest sustainability strategy announcement).

Policymakers, on the other hand, appear to have been less ambitious.

The UK Government made a relatively bold and welcome statement when it committed the UK to eliminating all “avoidable” single-use plastics as part of the 25-Year Environmental Plan. But the 2042 deadline of that ban is simply too late, some experts argue, and in many instances, it is far behind the ambitions of business.

Take frozen food retailer Iceland, for example, which recently committed to remove plastic packaging from its own-brand products by 2023. Of course, this 19-year ambition gap doesn’t account for the plethora of additional considerations that must to be made by Government to ensure a complete step-change on plastics use across the country, but it does serve to highlight the willingness of some businesses to go beyond compliance.

“We can make the biggest difference and Government always comes later,” Iceland’s own label and packaging manager Ian Schofield claims at the CWG event. “We always do things first… if you wait for it to come, it will never happen.”

Joining Schofield on the panel is Waitrose’s head of sustainability Tor Harris. Waitrose itself recently announced that it will stop selling packs of plastic straws at all supermarkets by September 2018. This announcement builds on the retailer’s commitment to make all own-label packing widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025 – notably, that commitment was established well before plastics became the major consumer concern.

Of course, the huge increase of global awareness over the past year is to be welcomed by industry. But, as Harris notes, one of the fallouts of this heightened scrutiny is the common expectation of immediate change in an area which is actually highly complicated and involves numerous parties across the supply chain.

“Our customers really care about this issue, and we got a lot of feedback before Blue Planet II kicked things off, saying they wanted us to use less plastic in packaging,” Harris says. “But one of the biggest challenges that we face is around the complexity of the issue and the challenge of helping the customers understand that what seems straightforward is actually far more complex.”

There is another challenge that this increase in awareness has brought: whilst all will agree that all avoidable single-use plastics must be stamped out fast, the net-value that plastic can play in our society – in protecting goods and extending the shelf-life of food products, for example – must not be suddenly forgotten and dismissed. That is certainly the view held by Klockner Pentaplast – one of the world’s largest suppliers of films and plastics for packaging, which uses up to 95% recycled PET for these items.

“[Plastic] keeps food safe, fresher for longer and it has superb properties that are fit for purpose when it comes to food protection,” says Klockner’s global sustainability director Lubna Edwards, who is also sat on the panel at the CWG event.

“There’s still huge sustainability benefits for the right plastics to be used for food packaging… compostable [packaging] has unintended consequences; [it] can contaminate well-established recycling streams. The public might think they can throw a compostable cup away and it will disappear, but there’s industrial infrastructure needed to manage that process.”

Clearly, effective consumer engagement has a critical role to play in this area. One company that knows all about this is British broadcaster Sky. The firm, which has announced that all single-use plastics will be removed from its products, operations and supply chain by 2020, has seen tremendous progress through its Ocean Rescue campaign. Launched in 2017, the campaign serves to highlight the ongoing plight of marine wildlife due to interactions with plastic waste, and it has so far been viewed by more than five million people.

On the CWG panel, Sky’s senior manager of inspirational business Marianne Matthews explains how the successes of the consumer-facing Ocean Rescue campaign is being met by a revamped internal process to phase-out single-use plastics.

“Ocean Rescue launched January 2017 because we have a voice,” Matthews explains. “We can shine a spotlight on the problem of plastic, but we are very aware we have to lead by example and show that what we’re doing as a business is no small feat. We made the [2020] commitment without knowing exactly how we can get there.

“Business has its role to play. From a consumer point of view its complicated, but we can remove the unnecessary. The topic of recycling is a minefield… the more we can simplify it the better, it needs to be intuitive where the packaging we produce looks like it can go to recycling, because it can, and it actually does get recycled.”

The panellists at the CWG event were all in agreement that the right plastics will still have an important role to play in the UK, and that ultimately, the solution to the plastics problem will largely depend on one key aspect: behaviour change.

CWG’s focus on behaviour change as part of this Breaking the Plastics Habit programme is therefore a welcome addition to the ongoing collaborative effort to turn the tide on plastics. It’s not a question of if business will change, but when. Businesses now needs to help shift consumer mindsets from when we will we get rid of plastics to how.

Matt Mace

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