Unintended consequences: Could the plastics phase-out lead to sustainability peril for businesses?

EXCLUSIVE: With the war on plastic becoming one of the hottest topics in the sustainability sphere, corporates rushing to make plastic-reduction pledges in a bid to appease customers are at risk of making changes which could lead to unintended consequences.

That is according to Surfdome’s head of sustainability Adam Hall, who discussed the latest corporate efforts to tackle the plastic scourge during the most recent episode of edie’s Sustainable Business Covered podcast.

Hall explained that, as dozens of retailers move to ban single-use plastic products and packaging within their operations, they put themselves at risk of greenwashing by investing in solutions which have environmental repercussions that are equally as negative.

“There are certainly fastly evolving ‘dos and don’ts’ and it is becoming clearer and clearer, month by month, what we should and shouldn’t do [to tackle plastics],” Hall said.

“There are some glaringly obvious and mismarketed solutions out there that businesses are unwittingly falling into the trap of. We have to have that greenwashing radar on and be careful as to whether businesses are using [these solutions] just to jump on the bandwagon.”

London-based Surfdome acts as an online retail distribution business, making more than 2.5 million deliveries of surf, snow, skate and outdoor apparel to customers each year. In a drive to reduce its single-use plastic output, the company committed in 2015 to an ongoing target of replacing 100% of the polyethene wrapping used to package its items for delivery with biodegradable cardboard alternatives.

Adam Hall at Responsible Retail 2018

Surfdome’s Adam Hall is one of the expert speakers who will be appearing on stage at Responsible Retail 2018 – edie’s unique event which inspires retailers and their stakeholders to realise the potential of environmentally and socially-conscious business models.

This full-day event will take place in London on 20 September 2018. Find out more and register to attend here.

As of 2017, Surfdome was 74% of the way towards this goal. By that time, the plastic-to-cardboard switch had eliminated the equivalent plastic of 1.2 million bottles. With the embodied carbon of cardboard less than half that of plastic, the project has also led to significant emissions savings, which are yet to be fully calculated.

Hall cited the switch to Oxo-degradable plastics (ODPs) as a common “pitfall”, claiming that the solution was “mismarketed”. ODPs are often marketed as biodegradable, but in reality, break down into microplastics – small pieces of plastic that can pass through water filtration systems into the marine environment. 

Indeed, the European Commission is currently facing calls for a bloc-wide ban on ODPs by 2020, while the EU Parliament is facing calls for term “biodegradable” to be banned in relation to the technology.

Nonetheless, Hall concluded that any business action on plastics would serve to spur progress by not only furthering cross-sector discussions surrounding the issue, but by enabling companies to learn from their mistakes and make more holistically sustainable decisions on resource management in the future.

“Sometimes you have objectors who come back with the argument that if you are not 100% perfect, you shouldn’t do it,” he said. “That’s where we get stagnation and that’s where progress isn’t made.”

“There’s a bigger threat from us not doing anything and, on that journey from not being 100% perfect, we will find 100% perfect.”

Surfing and sustainability

Surfdome’s plastic phase-out cost £900 in the first year, as cardboard is 110% more expensive than its plastic counterpart. Hall previously told edie that he achieved senior-level support for the switch by implementing efficiency measures elsewhere, such as cutting packaging tape to exact lengths, swapping bubble wrap for recycled paper, and using refillable printer ink cartridges. The cost savings generated from these moves were then ring-fenced and set aside for the purchase of cardboard packaging.

During the podcast, Hall explained that support for the switch came from a senior level and had “trickled down” the business over the past three years.

Hall added that by focusing on the plastic issue – an area in which the company was able to provide some “big-hitting, high-impact environmental wins” within a short timescale – Surfdome was able to generate the boardroom and consumer support it needed to begin work on longer-term sustainability projects.

Sustainable Business Covered

The edie editorial team brings you the latest news, insights and inspiration from the world of sustainable business in each episode of edie’s Sustainable Business Covered podcast.

There are 46 episodes across a range of topics to choose from, but the most recent edition sees edie travel to London to speak with Kingfisher’s head of sustainability Caroline Laurie and HP’s global director of sustainability operations Kirstie McIntyre to discuss how sustainability has continually evolved within both organisations, to the point where it has become business-critical.

You can listen to that episode, and browse a list of all the other editions so far, by clicking here.

Sarah George

Comments (7)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions"

    Knee jerk reactions to a problem often result in a bigger problem. Look at the mess we are in over diesel now. First it was "environmentally better" so the tax regime on company cars was changed to encourage people to switch to diesel but 20 years later diesel is the dirty fuel and is being taxed off the road.

    Will "plastic free" and the "switch to EV" end up being the same? Could ditching plastic result in food hygiene problems down the road? Will EV present us with a massive chemical pollution problem when it comes time to dispose of all the batteries?

    One has to congratulate SurfDome on their approach which does appear to have been well thought out and planned but the fear is too many companies are jumping on the bandwagon without the necessary "safety belts

  2. Richard Phillips says:

    The key is not to avoid the use of plastics, which perform their primary task very well; it is to have rigorous method of disposal.
    Opaque plastic milk bottles may be recycled easily, as may be the clear plastic drinks bottles. These should be recycled on a nationwide basis, overseen by Government, and strictly enforced.
    All other plastic packaging should be collected and burned in electricity generating incinerators. Again strict enforcement by Government.
    This applies to other plastic artefacts as well as packaging, which seems to be the only material under consideration at present. This requires separate consideration.
    But nobody will listen.
    Richard Phillips

  3. Gerry Goldner says:

    quote " Surfdome s plastic phase-out cost 900 in the first year, as cardboard is 110% more expensive "

    I assume there are costs much higher than 900! Does 110% mean that cardboard is more than double the cost of plastic?

  4. Richard Phillips says:

    Yes Keiron, agree on diesel and EVs. I certainly will not abandon my clean efficient diesel. And battery clean-up – never mentioned!
    One big problem is the almost entirely scientifically ignorant Government, up to and including Cabinet level.
    One thing is certain, the problem has to be approached on an officially backed nation-wide basis. And the foundation has to be scientifically sound; just being a nice little earner will not do!
    Richard Phillips

  5. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @ Richard – not just scientifically ignorant but ignorant full stop sometimes. Problem with politicians is they are only interested in the next 5 years and votes. What is needed is a cross party, apolitical, 25 year plan with proper scientific evidence to back it up, not instant headline grabbing proposals. And you are correct it needs to be national and standardised.

  6. Sarah Marshall says:

    it’s not just about plastic…some changes may mean the CO2 we produce goes up..and that’s not useful to our planet!

  7. Richard Phillips says:

    Ah Sarah, I thought that CO2 might come up at some stage!!
    There is a problem here, which the " we are going to hell in a handcart" lobby have made religion rather than a science out the situation.
    We do not know just how much CO2 is due to our activities.
    We do not know, at a molecular and greater level, just how CO2, at about one sixtieth of the concentration of our principal greenhouse gas, water vapour, has the huge influence attributed to it.
    The usual theory, that the CO2 helps to evaporate more water into vapour, when examined from a physical chemistry standpoint, it does not seem to carry such a great weight.
    That CO2 has an influence, undoubtedly. But how great?
    It is this degree of influence that bothers me, My analysis tells me that it is significantly smaller than is assumed by the IPCC.
    Richard Phillips

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