Every business has a critical role to play in reducing single-use plastics

In the two years since Blue Planet II ignited interest in the volume of plastic being used and discarded daily, businesses have made real progress in their efforts to eliminate single-use plastics.

Every business has a critical role to play in reducing single-use plastics

Since the launch of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in October 2018, common single-use plastic items such as straws, carrier bags and black carbon plastics are being eliminated by 70% of relevant business signatories while 80% are eliminating PVC from packaging. Where pledges to increase recycled plastic in packaging have also grown five-fold, it is clear the intention to do better and protect our marine and the wider environment is there in spades.

But we are only at the start of this journey and there is a long way to go to help facilitate a wider shift in behaviour from a throw-away culture of convenience to a more sustainable mindset of reuse and reinvestment. As we continue the journey towards more sustainable and longer-term behaviour change, research commissioned by BRITA and Keep Britain Tidy has found that there is much more that businesses can do, as well as highlighting the limitations faced by small and medium-sized businesses that lack the resources of their larger competitors.

As we look to implement changes within our own business, we at BRITA understand the challenges facing all businesses, including those felt more acutely by smaller companies. And as a company that regularly works with businesses of different sizes and sectors, we also believe it is important the business community works together on this crucial issue. Put simply, there is a constructive role for large businesses to demonstrate to their sector, staff, customers and suppliers how changes can be implemented to drastically reduce single-use plastics.

Given that there are about 5.7 million SMEs in Britain – accounting for 99% of all private businesses – they have a vital role to play in the sustainability agenda. Now is the moment for them to do more, and for larger businesses to take a leadership role and support SME sustainability campaigns and actions.

The challenge of single-use plastics amongst SMEs

Mindful of the huge impact businesses can have on the environment, last year BRITA commissioned research alongside Keep Britain Tidy looking at what has changed and what needs to change in the business world when it comes to single-use plastic. We conducted interviews with leading businesses and a national YouGov survey of over 1,000 British SME employers in order to understand both the challenges facing businesses of all sizes, and the key opportunities for improvement.

The resulting report, “The Role of Businesses in Reducing Single-Use Plastics,” published this week, gave us plenty of pause for thought. It was encouraging to find that 20% of SMEs reported replacing some or all of their single-use plastic and that 15% have removed single-use plastics from the supply chain in the last year. But at the same time, we were disheartened to find that only half of SMEs feel responsible for reducing single-use plastics within their business, while fewer than a quarter are motivated to be sector leaders in single-use plastic waste prevention. It is therefore unsurprising that only 30% of SMEs have encouraged staff to use reusable alternatives to disposable plastic.

Looking beyond the business, fewer than a quarter of SMEs consider themselves responsible for encouraging customers to reduce their consumption of single-use plastics while only 22% feel responsible for encouraging staff to reduce their use of single-use plastics at home. This is despite the fact that 70% of these businesses believe their staff want to reduce their single-use plastic footprint while 50% think customers want the same. Many businesses clearly recognise the need and opportunity to encourage sustainable practices but they need support to translate this desire into action.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. Transformations like eliminating the most prevalent single-use plastic from the business and supply chain cannot be done overnight, especially for small businesses facing myriad other considerations, and there is a clear need for support from larger businesses to go further. For example, just 6% of SMEs reported carrying out an audit of the single-use plastics in their business; there is an opportunity to help ensure all businesses are on the right track.

Quick wins and long-term changes

The report includes practical recommendations for all businesses, big and small, regarding how to reduce single-use plastics both in the workplace and in retail environments. There are a number of ‘quick wins’ that all companies should consider implementing as part of their sustainability strategy. These include banning disposable plastic bottles and plastic straws in workplace canteens; implementing a ‘safe to drink’ campaign to encourage the use of water taps; providing staff with reusable bottle and coffee cups; and eliminating single-use plastic bags.

Having implemented these ‘quick wins’, businesses should consider implementing or trialling more innovative and systematic interventions. A number of examples were identified in a co-creation workshop hosted by BRITA and Keep Britain Tidy, which saw industry-leaders come together to discuss the challenges and share solutions to reducing single-use plastics. These include running staff engagement campaigns to increase awareness of plastic waste or co-design sessions to develop ideas for targeted changes to implement within the business.

Businesses can also introduce sustainability trials, for example, introducing packaging-free product lines, deposit-return schemes for reusable alternatives to single-use plastic items at closed events, and making drinking fountains more accessible and attractive. These activities could all be supported with clear and visible messaging at tills and around the office that actively encourages recycling and sustainable practices.

Our report sheds light not just on the scale of the single-use plastics challenge but on the range of opportunities for businesses to reduce their plastics footprint and increasingly transition to a circular economy. These activities are a crucial part of supporting a wider societal shift in behaviour towards a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly mindset. Businesses have a critical role to play in supporting this behaviour change and encouraging environmental practises that will ultimately lead to sustained, long-term impact.

Single-use plastics waste is an issue of growing urgency and it will require all businesses to play their part. At BRITA, we believe there is a critical need for collaboration across industries, sectors and businesses, with large corporations taking a leadership role. Whether it is introducing a ‘quick win’ or a more creative programme for transformation, let’s make 2020 the year in which all businesses work together to achieve lasting change on single-use plastic.

Sarah Taylor is managing director at BRITA UK

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