It is just twenty four hours since the airing of the BBC “War on Plastic” programme and there is already some negative feedback on social media regarding inaccuracy, hidden agenda and misleading information. Whilst making no judgement regarding the veracity of these comments, they serve to highlight the strength of opinion regarding the highly contentious issues associated with single use plastic and global waste management.
The real problem for many organisations was neatly summarised at the recent “edie live” event when a speaker reported that a high percentage of customers responding to their survey were making changes regarding their use of single use plastic, and that it was essential for their organisation to ensure an alignment of the actual impacts of their use of plastic and the customer perception of the high profile issues.
The plastic challenge we face is on a huge scale as it is estimated that in the UK alone we use 5 million tonnes of plastic each year, and that in 2018 we exported 0.6 million tonnes of plastic waste (which was the lowest amount in a decade). This coupled with the prediction that global consumption of plastic is increasing by more than 3% each year and that the associated consumption of fossil fuels could rise to 20% of global reserves by 2050 means that finding a solution is a real priority.
Effectively communicating the material issues to the consumer is a notoriously difficult issue as demonstrated by the controversy over the infamous McDonalds clamshell packaging and the ongoing Shell decommissioning of the Brent oil field which continues to create public concern regarding potential oil rig remnants and residual contamination.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that this “crisis of perception” represents a perfect opportunity for environmentalists and sustainability specialists to create real improvements by taking a ‘back to basics’ approach and utilising the existing environmental management tools of life cycle thinking, design for environment, waste minimisation and environmental auditing.
The complexity of the plastic issue alongside ongoing innovation means that communicating simple rules is not an appropriate strategy. The 2018 call for consumers to “say no to black plastic” has since been modified and WRAP is anticipating that the majority of black plastic will be detectable to the recycling infrastructure by the end of 2019. So, the new message could be “Black is Back!” Confused? You are not alone as it was reported in 2017 that 78% of people were confused by Local Council recycling rules. It may be that in such a rapidly changing subject area it would be better to educate the stakeholders in the “whys” and not just the “whats” of the plastics debate, and this would align well with the implementation of established environmental management tools.
Organisations need to understand the relevant environmental and sustainability issues affecting their plastic choices. A suitable risk assessment should be completed, and to avoid “leakage” of impacts through the supply chain a life cycle perspective should be adopted. Having identified the relevant impacts an organisation should try to prioritise these issues, and as many of the impacts could be contradictory, complex or difficult to quantify the organisation may benefit from prioritising the impacts according to its existing company values and objectives or the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
A back to basics approach to waste minimisation will engage staff and provide vital information regarding opportunities for improvement and increasing the scope of the waste mapping to include relevant contractors may yield further opportunities for waste savings. By reasserting the waste hierarchy (with some slight amendments for plastic to reflect prevention and reuse opportunities which promote the circular economy) staff and other stakeholders could appreciate the rationale for the priority actions.
The importance of the circular economy needs to be highlighted as plastic has been described as “One of the most wasteful examples of our existing linear, take, make and dispose economy.” Such information would provide context to many of the initiatives regarding reuse, recovery and design for recycling.
It is estimated that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts can be influenced during the design phase and a review of material selection criteria has revealed that many organisations are buying the plastic raw materials without consideration of the actual material properties. There is much supporting information including the updated ISO 14006 guidelines for incorporation of eco design which is in the final review stage, and freely available guidelines on the design of plastic products for recyclability. It would therefore be a relatively simple activity to revise product introduction processes to include consideration of the plastic related impacts.
Monitoring and auditing progress are an inherent part of maintaining the desired change and organisations could easily amend existing audit schedules to include relevant plastic factors such as procurement, waste management and quality issues.
Although it is outside the scope of this article the importance of behavioural psychology is a significant element in eliciting desirable behavioural change and initiatives such as the Hubbub bubble blowing bins and the Funtheory bottle bank are great examples of engaging the public to recycle their waste.
To summarise the steps to develop an accurate perspective of your plastic impact
- Understand the concerns and priorities of your own organisation and those of your stakeholders
- Advise and inform stakeholders regarding the actual issues, particularly if the perceived concerns have been based on incomplete or inaccurate information.
- Avoid applying hard and fast rules and embrace the opportunity to create environmentally rational solutions that align with the company values.
- Apply the environmental management tools of waste minimisation, life cycle thinking and design for the environment to understand and resolve issues.
- Be familiar with evolving compliance issues (national and international) such as the recent EU rules on single use plastics (SUPs) or the Basel Convention amendment regarding plastic waste.
- Monitor and review your plastic performance using objective criteria.
In 2018 SEL Group Ltd undertook a number of Plastic Audits (PL-Audits) to assess the potential of an auditing tool to evaluate and benchmark performance. Our assessments concluded that scores could be provided for both the elements of environmental management and to compare different material streams, including the comparison of plastic and non-plastic options.
By applying a scored question set it was possible to benchmark and track performance and to ensure that audit feedback is consistently applied as a function of the scoring regime.
It was important to determine how well the audit scores aligned with the auditee’s perception of their plastic performance and what the underlying issues were. As could be expected for 2018 the organisations, although certified to ISO 14001:2015 and therefore considered as “responsible” revealed a naivety regarding plastic materials properties, selection and waste minimisation. It is anticipated that in 2019 the new compliance section may be similarly challenging.
Our perception of risk is often considered to be a personal process of decision making based on our lifetime of experience and other factors, and there is often concern that “experts” with their different knowledge base and experience have problems relating to this perspective. It may be encouraging that by applying these old fashioned tools of environmental management we can shift that knowledge and experience baseline and help to promote improvement in our future use and management of plastic.
The “plastic crisis” with all its complexity and myriad of stakeholders is truly a “wicked problem” and as such there can be no simple and elegant solution. This back to basics approach coupled with the ongoing boom in plastic management innovation will contribute to improving our plastic environmental performance. There appears to be even greater opportunity in the UK, as data suggests that in the UK we use 50 kg plastic per person each year compared with the EU average of 31 kg.
 Edie live Mission:Possible 22-5-19
 House of Commons briefing paper 08515 May 2019
 Statista 2019 Global Plastic production 1950-2017
 World Economic Forum 2016 Rethinking the future of plastics
 House of Commons briefing paper 08515 May 2019
 SEL audit process 2018 n=12
 Slovic P Perception of risk 1989
 Policy Connect Plastic Packaging PlanJan 2019
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
Dr Dawn Pope is a consultant and trainer for SEL Group Ltd which in 2018 launched the Plastic ThinkingTM programme of training and auditing services. Dawn has an MSc in Environmental Pollution Science, LLM in environmental and health & safety law and a PhD for the thesis Development of a three phase integrated assessment model for primary, secondary and tertiary packaging. Dawn has over twenty years’ experience as an EHS auditor and trainer.