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A back to basics approach to waste minimisation

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Just 24 hours after the airing of the BBC War on Plastic programme on 19 June there already was some negative feedback on social media regarding inaccuracy, hidden agenda and misleading information.


While 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 impact 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).

It is predicted that the global consumption of plastic will increase by more than 3 per cent each year, according to Statista’s 2019 Global Plastic production 1950-2017, and accordingly, the associated consumption of fossil fuels could rise to 20 per cent of global reserves by 2050.  This means that finding a solution to the plastic issue is a real priority.

Effectively communicating is a notoriously difficult issue. McDonalds provides a vivid example of addressing the materiality and not just perception issues, as demonstrated back in 1996 by the clamshell controversy which prompted McDonalds to phase out the packaging due to action taken by the Environmental Defense Fund.

This meant that, although the foam packaging had some environmental benefits in the paper vs foam comparison, the change was made because “customers don’t feel good about it”. Fast forward to August 2019 and CNN is reporting that “McDonalds new paper straws aren’t recyclable but the plastic ones were”.

Perception crisis

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 the Waste and Resources Action Programme charity (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!”

Plastic is used widely in all walks of life. Photograph: iStock/JannHuizenga

Confused? You are not alone. In 2017 it was reported that 78 per cent 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 surely engage staff and will provide vital information regarding opportunities for improvement. On the other side, 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 European parliament has voted to ban single-use plastic cutlery by 2021. Photograph: iStock/ Mypurgatoryyears

The importance of the circular economy, aimed at minimising waste and making the most of resources, 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 per cent 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 the product introduction processes to include consideration of the plastic-related impacts. Besides, organisations could easily amend existing audit schedules to include relevant plastic factors such as procurement, waste management and quality issues.

So, the steps to develop an accurate perspective of your plastic impact are:

  • 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 the UK exported 0.6 million tonnes of plastic waste

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.

Benchmarking opportunities

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, in 2018 many 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 packaging per person each year compared with the EU average of 31 kg.

The UK Plastics Pact, the world’s first programme to tackle the issue of plastic waste through collaboration across the entire supply chain. Find out more here

Videos of The Ocean Cleanup on YouTube 

Dr Dawn Pope is consultant and trainer at SEL Group Ltd

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