It’s hard to watch a nature documentary these days without feeling just a little guilty. Rightly, David Attenborough and co no longer just show breathtaking, slo-mo HD videos of the natural world; they also show the extent to which we’re collectively trashing it.
The guilt can be professional as well as personal. After all, business is, in the grand narrative of climate change, plastic pollution and habitat destruction, public enemy number one.
I remind myself that this isn’t entirely fair – businesses play by rules set by politicians elected by voters and, whether directly or indirectly, they supply what consumers demand – but this is hardly an excuse for inaction.
The challenge is that going green isn’t always straightforward. Let’s focus on plastic waste, which is having such a devastating effect on marine ecosystems. Eliminating plastic altogether from, say groceries, would massively increase food waste instead, while paper packaging in some instances may actually have a higher carbon footprint, owing to the extra weight and greater energy requirements to manufacture.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing businesses can do. For inspiration, here are a few tried and tested ideas we’ve seen that can make an impact.
1) Use less plastic
The easiest win for sustainability-minded firms is simply to use less plastic, often in lots of little ways. Shortly before the pandemic, for example, British Airways announced plans to cut 700 tonnes of single use plastics from its annual operations, with measures that include replacing plastic drinks stirrers with bamboo, ditching cellophane for paper wrapping around blankets and headphones, and finding alternatives to plastic cutlery.
Food producers like Cranswick have made their plastic packaging lighter, while Procter & Gamble has started selling refillable shampoo pouches as an alternative to bottles, which reduces plastic usage per millimetre by 60%. Other brands have pioneered the use of compostable packaging, the most exotic of which I’ve seen is grown from mushrooms.
2) Use recycled plastic
The second most obvious way of cutting plastic waste is to use recycled plastic. The only challenge here is that recycled plastic isn’t quite as easy to come by as people might think.
Analysis by consultancy Eunomia suggests as little as 23% to 29% of plastic packaging waste in the UK is recycled, meaning that even if industry wanted to go fully recycled there wouldn’t be sufficient supply.
The reason is largely because recycling more difficult plastics is not always economically viable, particularly when the oil price is low, which reduces the cost of the fresh plastic alternative. But it’s also due to the fact that a substantial proportion of plastic put into recycling ends up being sent to landfill – at a cost to the recycling company – due to contamination with non-recyclables.
Businesses are still rightly making commitments to use more recycled plastic in their packaging however, something they’re able to do by looking at the big picture. Britvic, for example, has said that it will use 100% recycled plastic in its drinks bottles by the end of next year, while simultaneously providing a £5m investment support package to help recycling company Esterform build a state-of-the-art facility in the North East.
Meanwhile, in an industry first, Unilever announced that by the end of last year its Magnum ice cream tubs and lids would be made from recycled polypropylene – a low-grade plastic that previously couldn’t be recycled to a food-grade quality. It did this by working with diversified chemicals company SABIC to develop the technology to make it feasible.
3) Make your plastics recyclable
This is perhaps where businesses can have the biggest impact. A key reason for the widespread contamination of plastics sent to recycling centres is that, as a consumer, it’s often exceptionally difficult to figure out whether any or all of a spent package can actually be recycled.
Some types can be put in mixed recycling, while others need to be separated. Some need to be washed out, others don’t. The instructions on the packaging are often inadequate or simply difficult to see.
And that’s on businesses. If you care about reducing plastic waste, then make it easier for your consumers not to make the easiest decision just throw it away.
Partly this is about putting clearer disposal instructions on the packaging itself, but it also helps if more – or ideally all – of the packaging is recyclable. M&S for example stopped using black plastic packaging – which is difficult to recycle – in its food products. It also introduced points in its stores for customers to bring hard-to-recycle plastics, which are then converted to playground equipment.
Others like Costa coffee have paid incentives to recycling companies to collect used coffee cups – which can be recycled but at a higher cost, and which need to be kept separate from mixed recycling – as well as encouraging customers to bring their own reusable cups.
This clearly isn’t a problem that businesses can solve on their own. Governments and consumers will also need to be involved. But with a concerted effort and a little ingenuity, it is possible to make a difference.