VOTE: Which sustainability issue will have its 'plastics moment' in 2019?
New years are always a time of reflection, introspection and planning - for sustainability professionals and the general public alike. With this in mind, edie has explored the environmental and social issues which could have their own "plastics moment" in 2019.
More than a year after Blue Planet 2 kick-started a wave of plastics actions from consumers, policymakers and corporates, the war on plastic is undeniably still high on the sustainability agenda.
2018 saw a huge increase in awareness of – and action to combat – the 12 million tonnes of plastics added to the world’s oceans each year, with WRAP founding the UK Plastics Pact in April and 276 companies joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy in October.
Elsewhere, innovators have moved at a pace to develop recycling solutions, biodegradable alternatives and new uses for post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics, while the UK Government has unveiled plans for a nationwide deposit-return scheme and plastic straw ban.
But in parallel to this rise in plastics action, several other sustainability issues are beginning to come to the forefront of the UK public’s attention. As with plastic, other areas are now facing new waves of scrutiny borne from exposés on primetime TV or new scientific studies laying bare their negative consequences.
With this in mind, edie has scanned the horizon for five sustainability issues which could begin to have their “plastics moment” within the next 12 months.
1) Palm oil
Palm oil appears in more than 50% of all supermarket products, but the commodity is linked to environmental destruction in global supply chains. Expanding palm oil and wood pulp plantations are the biggest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, where many species are being threatened with extinction.
While several big-name companies had already pledged to end their role in palm oil-led deforestation before 2018, the issue experienced unprecedented public attention after Iceland’s advert that highlighted the destructive nature of palm oil was blocked from airing on UK television channels in December.
After publicly committing to remove the oil from all its own-brand products last April, the retailer had planned to air Greenpeace’s animated ‘Rang-tan’ advert – which tells the story of a displaced Orangutan breaking into a family home after losing his habitat – before Christmas, but the video was blocked from airing on UK TV channels after being dubbed “too political” by regulator Clearcast.
Clearcast’s decision sparked widespread outrage, with more than 800,000 people signing a petition demanding that the advert be aired across Clearcast ’s major UK commercial broadcasters - ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Turner.
However, several green groups and NGOs then began to voice concerns around knee-jerk consumer and retailer reactions, with the IUCN concluding that a palm oil phase-out would likely displace habitat loss and deforestation rather than eliminating it. Similarly, WWF has placed an increased focus on “clean” and sustainably-sourced palm oil instead of alternatives such as rapeseed and coconut oil.
2) Air quality
If you live in London, you’ll have been hard-pressed to have made it through 2018 without having heard the Mayor of London’s ‘air that I breathe’ adverts – which feature children playing, studying walking in polluted air. The issue of air pollution has undoubtedly proven emotive with the general public, with concerns about childhood health, mortality rates and the impact of airbourne pollutants on factors such as weight and brain development having built at a pace throughout 2018.
Such concerns have not arisen without a solid foundation. London reached its legal annual limit for air pollution levels less than a month into 2018, for example, meaning that every person in the capital was breathing air that exceeds World Health Organisation guidelines just a few months ago.
More widely, nitrogen dioxide pollution, mostly produced by diesel vehicles, has been illegally high in most urban parts of Britain since 2010 – a problem which has seen the UK Government taken to court three times over its air quality policies in recent years.
Public and policy awareness of the issue reached a new high in 2018, with MPs, city leaders and corporates alike calling for PM Theresa May to take action to reduce the nation's air pollution levels. Other businesses, meanwhile, have invested in high-tech air filtration systems in a bid to keep the air within their own offices and shops clean – and to prove a point to Government.
This trend shows no sign of slowing down in 2019, with innovations that could help clean city air or help the general public avoid pollution emerging rapidly and businesses continuing to invest in such technology. Several policies which could help turn the tide on the issue are also due out in the near future – most notably the Ultra-low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London, which comes into effect this April.
Over the past few years, sustainable fashion has made its own journey from being a topic discussed only by niche bloggers to one which drew the biggest audience in UK history to a select committee hearing in November 2018.
The continuing rise in consumer, Government and corporate attention about the social and environmental cost of today’s “fast fashion” model – in which low-cost clothing is mass-produced and designed for disposal – is no doubt being driven rapidly by exposes on primetime TV, new scientific studies and the emergence of alternative business models championing rental and resale.
Documentaries such as Stacey Dooley Investigates Fast Fashion and The True Cost – both freely available online – and media exposés on supply chain worker treatment at garment factories, including the infamous Rana Plaza, have fanned the flames on the issue and consumers are beginning to notice.
As with plastics, fashion is an issue which is easily “tangible” to the general public. We all use garments daily and buy them regularly, with the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) estimating that the average Brit now consumes new clothing at a faster rate than their counterparts in mainland Europe, purchasing an average of 26.7kg every year. Of these items, 85% will end up in landfill or incineration within three years, according to the World Wear Project.
And while the global fashion industry is arguably lagging other sectors in making progress towards sustainable sourcing and resource efficiency, the issues are beginning to become a differentiator to consumers. Fashion Revolution’s recent survey of 5,000 European consumers found that 88% of respondents would prefer to buy from a company which engages in environmental protection than one which does not, for example, while young consumers are leading the success of clothing rental and resale platforms.
Indeed, green is starting to become the new black, with Lyst’s recent annual year in fashion report finding that three of the top ten most Instagrammed clothing brands are classed as sustainable and events such as London Fashion Week using their platforms to showcase innovative materials.
While resource efficiency and sustainable sourcing remain two very visible challenges facing the textiles and garment sectors, public awareness of the fact that most clothing is now produced using plastic-based textile blends, which disperse plastic microfibres when they are worn or washed, is beginning to rise.
And while plastic packaging and discarded fishing gear have been used by green groups to illustrate ocean pollution in campaign imagery, concerns are increasingly being raised about the environmental impact of the fibres that are released when we wash clothes.
According to The Story of Stuff, microfibres are, by count, the single largest contributor to watershed plastic pollution in developed countries, with 1.4 million trillion already estimated to have entered oceans and waterways globally.
The fact that scientists are not fully aware of the impact of microfibres on human health has historically prevented the issue from gripping public attention. But 2018 proved something of a wake-up call, with studies finding microfibres in seafood intended for human consumption – and even in human faeces – for the first time.
In response to the problem, several big-name brands including Asos, H&M and C&A have moved to publish more comprehensive garment care instructions on their websites in recent months, encouraging consumers to wash their clothes less and use microfibre-catching bags when necessary.
Similarly, innovators have begun to bring products like Guppy Bags – which filter microfibres from garments placed within them during washing – and Cora Balls – which catch microfibres using biomimicry – to market in recent months. And the fact that lifestyle websites including the Guardian and Vogue are publishing guides on microfibre reduction proves that consumer appetite for change in this area is growing – even if it is among only the easiest groups to reach.
5) Meat and dairy
The need to tackle the climate impact associated with the human consumption of meat and dairy is significant, with GHG emissions from the livestock sector estimated to account for 15% of the global total.
The good news is that, as consumer awareness of the environmental and ethical challenges posed by the global meat, seafood and daisy industry rises across the globe, the number of people identifying as vegan in the UK has increased by 350% since 2008, according to research by the Vegan Society.
As with plastics, the livestock sector is now facing media exposes, new scientific studies laying bare its full negative impacts and the launch of alternative products. Documentaries such as Cowspiracy are freely available on Netflix, for example, while restaurants are increasingly moving to serve innovative dishes such as ‘bleeding’ veggie burgers and plant-based ‘pork’ patties.
The scale of the consumer focus on meat-free meals in the UK is now such that Tesco has predicted that plant-based protein will be the fastest-growing food market of 2018, after the retailer recorded a 25% year-on-year increase in sales of vegetarian and vegan ready meals. Similarly, the likes of Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, and Waitrose & Partners have made moves to capitalise on this shift, launching new ranges of plant-based meals, sauces and food to go.
With the pressure now on for the food industry to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050 – in a more sustainable way than at present – investors are predicting that the coming months and years will mark a boon for plant-based protein. The FAIRR initiative, started by Coller Capital, estimates that the global market for alternative plant-based proteins could expand at an annual rate of 8.29% in the next three years and reach $5.2bn by 2020.
So, it’s time to have your say. VOTE for the topic you think will be the next ‘hot topic’ for sustainability in 2019 below.