A world beyond waste
By Irvin Newbitt, Chief Executive Officer at Ecoveritas
Plastics are poisoning our planet. Governance is failing. And corporations are out of control.
Too incisive? Too fiery? Possibly. But statements like these are certainly too common. But then we live in a world too dominated by extreme opinions, and consequently, many people feel overwhelmed by the current state of our environment.
Too often, the debate quickly becomes preachy and laden with complicated jargon. Our first-hand experience tells us that working with businesses to empower individuals to inform themselves, ask questions and subsequently make smart choices, proves that living sustainably can be both fun and convenient. Besides, it will not only positively impact the environment but the wellbeing of you and your customers too!
The numbers must stack up
2023 is expected to be a busy year for environmental policymakers and distributors of packaging alike, as a slew of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and EPR-related legislation is coming into force. So why can’t we be hopeful?
READ MORE: The time to deal with EPR is now. In the UK, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging is not going away and the time to deal responsibly and effectively with the upcoming legislative risk is now.
The basics of climate science are easy. We know it is almost exclusively human-caused. Which means its solutions will be similarly human-led.
And if you want to take informed actions to support a better world, you need data. Data is one of the world’s most influential currencies and can be converted into different values. At Ecoveritas, we now sit on millions of data points. We keep using it, and it keeps regenerating.
Data is everything, especially in the world of environmental compliance. Our ability to collect data far outpaces our ability to utilise it fully – and clearly, those data may hold the key to solving some of the biggest global challenges facing us today.
It helps us unravel the complexities and trade-offs needed to understand seemingly obvious material choices. It helps us understand sustainability is not an easy feature to add to the manufacturing process, but it is indeed possible to do so with both ecological and financial benefits. Thankfully, our talented team has decades of far-reaching experience in this.
At Ecoveritas, we grow by millions of data points each year. That is an ungraspable quantity. We are happy to have a full analytics and data team ready to make sense of that vast amount of packaging data available. They allow us as a business – and by extension our customers – to be clear-sighted and take the right packaging decisions based on facts, instead of reaching conclusions based on preconceived ideas or subjective “gut feelings”.
It would help if you had a map reader in this complex world. Our data shows that Ecohub (our data collection and analytics platform) increases overall user engagement. We can see an increase in data activity, both the total amount of data uploaded and the data quality per user. We can also see a significant increase in users, including customers and their supply chains that use the platform daily to upload packaging metrics.
This new technology we have developed makes EPR reporting easier – especially for the upcoming UK EPR for packaging reform- so it may be too early to draw any conclusions. However, these valuable insights support our strategy of adding more tech-driven tools to our portfolio that will help our customers comply with environmental legislation faster, more impactfully and cost-effectively.
It also makes for more transparent, accountable, and effective teams and encourages the kind of big, bold bets that can transform an organisation.
No more conscientious stupidity
Plastic is all around us. It is so ubiquitous that it shows up in freshly fallen snow in the Antarctic and the placenta of unborn babies.
Recycling initiatives have had limited success. According to the latest data from Eurostat, each person in the EU generated 34.6 kilograms (kg) of plastic packaging waste in 2020 but recycled just 13kg. Recycling rates rose in 2010-16 but have since fallen back to 2011 levels.
Hopefully, 2023 will see the full publication of the proposals on EPR and consistency in recycling. This has huge potential to raise quality and standards, create more material for recycling and help every part of the value chain work closely in creating a circular economy.
With the current flurry of information and activity from Defra, particularly concerning the introduction of EPR and the funding mechanisms and mandated collection of plastic films for recycling at the kerbside, local authorities and waste management providers should have the confidence to adapt and invest in their collection schemes to see the capture of more of these currently lost resources.
A lack of stability in central government has no doubt served to slow the development of the circular economy in the UK, with no less than three secretaries of state for the environment in 2022.
Circular economy agenda essential
Plastics recycling charity RECOUP estimates that 750,000 tonnes of post-consumer plastic packaging were not collected for recycling in the UK in 2021. Hopefully, the government will soon provide the much-needed confidence to support our sector’s transition to a world beyond waste.
Retailers care deeply about the cost of a packaged product up to the warehouse door but take little responsibility for it once it has been sold. The old barcode system on the product is only relevant for the retailer up to the product being sold.
Extended Producer Responsibility is a policy approach under which producers are given a significant financial and/or physical responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. From 2024 packaging producers will pay the full cost of managing packaging once it becomes waste.
READ MORE: This is our green shot. 2023 must be a banner year for policy action in the UK. From building electrification and decarbonisation to Extended Producer Responsibility, 2023 must be the tipping point.
The effect has been increased recycling where EPR systems are already in place, but no actual reduction in the generation of packaging waste. Unfortunately, this trend continues across the board – anywhere you look.
Who benefits from this way of consuming? Not consumers, not even the brands or retailers selling their products. It’s the extraction companies on the front end and the waste management companies on the back end: take, make, waste. And more recycling – while important – doesn’t do anything to disrupt this system of unnecessary overconsumption.
EPR can and should be about creating a circular packaging economy that prioritises source reduction and reuse above recycling. To do that, new EPR legislation should include provisions that prioritise building out reuse systems and infrastructure.
EPR should have a crucial role in tackling the current product design and waste management patterns which run counter to the Circular Economy targets and priorities, as well as in setting the framework for products which could be reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted.
Selling the idea of EPR shouldn’t have been this hard. But we’re up against the consumer culture that’s being pushed on us by the advertising industry and the culture around us. Advertisements that make consumption look not only like the default but the only measure of success and happiness.
In all of these discussions, the goal shouldn’t be just passing EPR legislation or increasing recycling. It should be about creating a circular packaging economy that reduces unnecessary overconsumption and helps restore the planet. Beyond changing perspectives among individuals, there is an urgency to push companies towards better product designs and packaging choices.
The current plastics predicament is not mainly a problem of weak waste management or poor consumer choices but instead is driven by powerful corporations that dominate plastics production and use. EPR and more widely adopted conscientiousness is another vital step toward curtailing the limitless growth assumption.
When policymakers, businesses and NGOs can align around circularity as the goal, then the sky’s the limit for what we can accomplish.