The cost of doing nothing is simply too high

In recent months we have heard that plastic is being discovered in animal blood streams and species continue to be under threat by the damaging effects plastic pollution is having on our planet. It isn’t in any doubt that businesses, consumers, and government recognise the severity of problem - it is just how we as a collective fix it now, argues Reconomy's Harvey Laud.

The cost of doing nothing is simply too high

Earlier this year nearly 200 countries agreed to negotiate on an international agreement to act on the resolution of the plastics crisis. This means UN members will commence work on a framework for reducing plastic waste across the world. Although a major and positive step in aligning the way countries tackle plastic waste, leaders from across the world have until 2024 to finalise and agree the treaty. There will undoubtedly be debate about who pays and how we make sure countries are properly equipped for the change. Alongside this, and as part of the UK Government’s Waste and Resource Strategy, legislation for deposit return schemes, plastics tax and extended producer responsibility are all well underway and we are starting to see outputs from this come through. From 1st April 2022 manufacturers and importers of plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic content will be charged at a rate of £200 per metric tonne.

Reconomy is a strong advocate for turning off the plastics waste tap. Managing the recycling and disposal of plastics is only part of the equation. Going back to the start point of the product lifecycle, at product design, should be where high consideration is given to material content. Firstly, targeting prevention of unnecessary materials, and secondly factoring in the ease of recyclability for the remaining content. This applies broadly to packaging materials and isn’t an exclusive problem to plastic. Part of the goal to reduce material content is about preventing as much material as possible from ending up as waste. For materials that can’t be prevented then as a minimum, a robust recycling and segregation solution set up to capture and return valuable materials so they can be returned back into the resource cycle.

The question is whether this will inevitably fall to the carrot and stick of ‘consumptive capitalism’, legislation; and whether businesses should wait for law to determine what is and isn’t acceptable or, proactively embrace the ethos of an emerging ‘regenerative capitalism’ and do the right thing based on the knowledge that ‘the cost of doing nothing’ is too great for us all to bear. Eliminating plastics or other unnecessary waste isn’t an impossible task, but it is made more complex when a business has a variety of stakeholders with various incentives and levels of ‘plastics dependency’. Aligning these teams by embedding a clear unilateral corporate strategy and consistent principles focussed on common goals will help build a robust process. Whilst this transition must happen, winning the hearts and minds of consumers is equally as important. As businesses, we have a responsibility to demonstrate that we not only embrace change but initiate and propagate it – after all, there’s no greater truth than the observation that ‘necessity is the mother of all invention’. So, for example, if 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 or if you are ordering supplies of some kind, check what packaging they arrive in and whether a more sustainable alternative can be used.

As much as these are practical steps, they are also symbolic actions which can be tremendously powerful in helping initiate and support behavioural change. Businesses most affected by changing consumer demands are those in sectors such as retail or hospitality. Since Blue Planet back in 2017, many have been trying to meet consumer demands, but some have ended up in the trap of introducing suboptimal solutions which typify the ‘do less bad’ ethos as opposed to the more sustainable ‘do more good’, which underpin business purpose. At best these are inefficient and only treated the symptoms but, in some cases, they have resulted in other environmental impacts. The fact that these consequential impacts are not associated with plastic means that they are not currently impacting upon the consumers’ conscience.

Focusing just on the cost of recycling as a way to drive down costs is not all that sustainable. Businesses must begin measuring their environmental footprint as well as their commercial in equal measure and act on both 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 wasted resources – there’s something very circular about these arguments which is 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. Smart business recognises that sustainability is not a cost to be born but a commercial opportunity to be realised.

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