World Environment Day (WED) on 5th June provides us with an opportunity each year to reflect on a theme and take action. It could have a tendency to be a negative affair, however we have much to celebrate with improvements in our environment. Efforts towards WED have been hit or miss in the past though and we could be doing so much more and engage beyond the ‘converted’.

So, having raised concerns with the Society for the Environment and IEMA Employer Forum members, I have been delighted by the enthusiasm of peers to recognise the issue and opportunity that WED provides, and the commitment from Willmott Dixon, Skanska, Siemens, Canary Wharf, Rolls Royce, supported by IEMA and SocEnv, to share and develop materials. We gained an earlier announcement to the theme (plastic pollution), so the ground was laid for a better outcome and a successful celebration of pledges and action taken, to kick-start of a day for action across the year.

And it was not about just one day – WED18 was just the start. We’ve published materials on the webpage set up by IEMA with SocEnv, to prepare for a stronger take-up from WED18. We asked friends, colleagues and communities to consider what they can each do to play their part in tackling our love/hate for plastics, and to challenge each to take a pledge, take action and take time to feedback, using the hashtag #pledgelessplastic.

We shared your case studies, encouraged you to make and share your pledges, whether as individuals, teams, community groups or organisations. We are now collating your responses six months on; the outcome is impressive.

It’s worth reflecting on the plastic material; as with many readily available low-cost materials, the value given to plastic can be all-to-clearly seen in the hedgerows and verges alongside our roads, railways, canals and streams. The pathway of plastic pollution is horrifically clear-to-see, however gradual and steady its journey from our communities, windblown or weather beaten into micro fragments, to drains and watercourses.

Great Britain has a long and proud campaign history, initiated by the Women’s Institute resolution in 1954 that led to the Keep Britain Tidy charity being formed and well-trod efforts and campaigning since 1970s that has highlighted the plastics plight. Legislation has been introduced to tackle littering and fly-tipping, most recently with the extension from London of “The Littering From Vehicles Outside London Regulations 2018” that came into force on 1st April (no joke at all).

Despite all this effort, littering and plastic pollution is on the rise. The tide of plastic pollution from land to sea has been on the steady, with not even efforts to tidy up for the Queen’s birthday this summer making the bow wave that it rightly deserved for Her Majesty to rid Her realm of the plastic scourge.

The spotlight on plastic pollution was highlighted well in 2005 by Ellen MacArthur, made Dame for her pioneering solo round world sailing achievements, and showcasing the plight of plastic in the ocean; followed by Sir David Attenborough Blue Planet series, well before the rejection of surplus materials returning on containers back across the seas to the Far East. So perhaps the Chinese decision to refuse accepting the world’s plastic habit is no surprise? But who did not quietly celebrate that event, when the Chinese declined to continue receiving all our plastic waste, and then stainless steel, as well as other materials? It has created both risk and opportunity: risk of materials mountain and fly-tipping of low value discarded materials in the home country; as well as opportunity to realise the scale of the discarded problem from our shores. Though the UK economy could surely benefit from the jobs in the UK, as well as a kick-start to break the chain and create a sustained circular economy for waste streams that could feed UK manufacturing with valuable raw materials. Could industrial heartlands reallocate infrastructure towards these activities and rebuild opportunity in areas of much needed social and financial capital investment?

As often the case, the visible culprit is the material, the end product and outcome. But, is plastic a good or bad material? It is the by-product that has been successfully adapted to become a highly useful material. It has created significant job opportunities across its value chain, from design, procurement, manufacture and retail, often many high volume, low paid roles for the developing economies. Turning off the plastic tap will directly effect jobs, if not already, for many families locally and globally.

So, is the problem’s root cause the material or how it’s used? Single use disposal, quick easy, use-and-forget, makes the behaviour, respect and value for the material the core issue. All materials have a value, if they’re respected, cared for as a material and the tendency to discard that material avoided. The trick is how we recover that material for effective reuse. How can manufacturers, suppliers and companies work together more effectively to close the loop? Can waste service providers help us all better understand why they cannot simply just deal with it for us? And can waste service providers repurpose their infrastructure to help with the logistics for recovery?

Willmott Dixon uses many takeback schemes, some with greater success than others. As an example, the Community Wood Recycling programme has been nationally successful as a franchised model, and we are proud recipients of awards for the first construction company to break first 10,000t and then 20,000t recycling milestones. Could an equivalent be generated for plastics and other materials? Or could our work with suppliers Onsite and Lee Bros, help recover plastic streams into feedstock material of a quality that our PPE manufacturers, such as JSP based in Witney, can use to make more high quality products? The logistics challenge and recycling infrastructure to recover discarded HDPE PPE (such as helmets, signage, facemask filter canisters and protective eyeware), so that these may be chipped and provided as a feedstock material to be remoulded into non-hygiene grade products, such as bases for traffic barriers and cones.

The 2018 World Environment Day called for us all to “refuse or reuse” plastic, to avoid discarding the product. As soon as it is discarded it is a waste. The linear behaviour of “use and dispose” cannot continue.

China’s decision to close the gate to plastic and other waste streams may be brave and bold, or a simple consequence of tipping-point being met. We need to see the same bold and brave commitments in our supply and waste sectors to break the linear pollution pathway, to kick start the circular economy for waste and to create new material supply/demand opportunities for the products that we need in our economy.

The circular economy is operating naturally for high valued recycled products (aggregates, soils, steel, masonry) and has done through demolition and groundwork activities for generations. But the higher volume/lower cost are more challenging and must be initiated from a point, to break the declining spiral of the linear economy, to creating the upward spiral of iterative circular material. Will this create new economies on our own shores and self-sustain our own economy? Could this allow UK industry to recognise the plastic problem and create new innovative approaches to return high volume and lower value materials back into our supply chains?

If we can, we will make Britain Great again in its economy, for its environment and the wellbeing for all our communities.

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are those of the individual contributing member, and are not necessarily representative of the views of IEMA or any professional institutions with which IEMA is associated. 


About the Author

Martin Ballard is Group Environment Manager for Willmott Dixon, responsible for environmental protection, legal assurance and promotion of environmental improvements for risk mitigation, assisting the business with best practice to perform to company targets. He is responsible for the Group’s ISO14001:2015 Environmental management system. Martin has chaired the industry’s Water Task Group and the BIG Biodiversity Challenge awards selection panel.