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The Tide is Turning on Plastic Pollution

27th February 2018

ecoVeritas has been following the wave of stories about plastic pollution, especially in the oceans since November 2017. Two things seem to have kick-started national interest in this subject – in mid November, David Attenborough’s powerful series, Blue Planet II brought the issues of ocean pollution to the public consciousness. This influential national treasure gave a direct message to the people of the world, that we need to change our ways fast, or the damage to oceans would be irreparable. He showed tragic images of how plastic pollution is affecting sea life, including this story about a dead whale cub.

Around the same time, the Conservative government announced their intention in the budget to investigate possible taxes on single use plastics following success with the 5p plastic bag tax. Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary pledged to tackle the throwaway culture which has developed in our society with plastic bottles, takeaway cups and trays often discarded into landfill. He was ‘haunted’ by images in Blue Planet II and vowed to tackle a series of issues in the government’s 25 year environment plan, including extending the 5p charge for single use bags to smaller retailers. In this plan, Theresa May pledged government support for several initiatives, such as those mentioned above, plastic free aisles in supermarkets, and aiming for zero avoidable waste by 2050.

bananas in boxes plastic pollutionIn the early part of 2018 this issue seems to be prevalent in the media as well as the public consciousness. A number of terms such as #plasticfree are widely used on Twitter. Shoppers are highlighting the ways in which many supermarkets are unnecessarily using plastic wrapping, for example on fresh fruit and vegetables, clothes and toilet rolls in an attempt to persuade change in this area. A number of users have pledged a #plasticfreelent including artist Now Then, Sunshine whose top tips for plastic reduction ecoVeritas recently reblogged. On a light-hearted note, it is good to hear some pet owners are also getting in on the plastic free goals with a move towards plastic free catfood. This has gone beyond the ‘ecowarrior’ territory. Petitions calling for banning of microbeads (successfully implemented), stopping supermarkets from selling fruit and veg packaged in plastic, and requesting the UK government to help reduce plastic in oceans have gained tens or, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of signatures. A plastic-free supermarket also reported being busier than usual in Jan 2018.

Not to be left behind, the Queen has also made requests for the Royal estates to stop using plastic straws, bottles and cups. Prince Charles has also regularly spoken on the topic of ocean pollution and is thought to be a keen environmentalist.

Whilst this level of interest and engagement is well overdue, we are aware that the reduction of plastic pollution and use is more complex than it is sometimes communicated through the media.  The relationship between a reduction in plastic packaging and an increase in food waste, the environmental impact of alternatives to plastic and the issues with using recycled (or partially recycled) packaging for foods are some of the areas that our clients are currently wrestling with.

Some supermarket chains are making public statements about how they aim to reduce the plastic used in their products. Iceland made a bold pledge to be plastic free by 2020 in own brand products and Asda are going to reduce own brand packaging by 10% by the end of 2018. ecoVeritas is working with some leading supermarkets to identify ways they can reduce or eliminate their packaging waste by lightweighting or other methods. The real challenge would seem to be devising strategies to address the issue of excessive plastic waste whilst ensuring that the negative environmental impact isn’t just shifted elsewhere.  The first step in making those decisions is to really understand the current situation: what are the key contributors to the problem and what changes will have the most significant effect. As a company, we aim to put our data analysis specialism to use in supporting supermarkets and other retailers in their goal of reducing plastic pollution and waste. Do get in touch if you think we can assist your company in this area.

It really feels like the tide is turning and that single use or non-recyclable plastic may finally be on the way out, in the UK at least. However, setting the right targets for improvement and ensuring that those are achieved is a challenge for us all to engage with and work towards.