We are not about to give up on plastic. It’s too useful. Even in terms of sustainability, there are very good reasons to keep using some plastic for the foreseeable future. It’s lightweight. That means less carbon emissions for transport than heavier alternatives like glass. It excels at keeping goods fresh and safe. So it reduces waste in our long distance food supply chains. It is robust. It can create long lasting products. Many forms of plastic can be recycled and reused. So it’s going to be a while before we refill all the niches plastic has been poured into over the past 150 years.
But we now know the extent to which our world has fallen victim to plastic’s success.
It has contaminated all life on Earth. This includes Oriental Bay in Wellington – one of the most heavily plastics polluted areas of sea ever tested.
Plastic is in our water, it’s in our food. It’s all over the place. The toxic effects of this are disrupting the natural patterns of life.
This is a major challenge. Like all major challenges even big businesses can’t do it on their own. The plastics system is huge and complex. It is interwoven with our entire economic model. That's why the Sustainable Business Network (SBN), along with a host of other key organisations, are adopting a circular economy approach.
It’s why the SBN’s Circular Economy Accelerator is building a coalition of companies to diagnose the system, to map out the challenges. From there we will get to work on the challenging task of shifting the whole system.
To create a circular economy the lifecycles of materials must be maximised. Their use must be optimised. At the end of life all materials must be reutilised. That requires designing a whole new system for plastic products. This includes designing out plastics that have no value. It means creating closed loop systems so plastics can be collected and reused without leakage into the environment.
James Griffin leads SBN’s work on the circular economy. He says: “This is a systemic problem. It will only be comprehensively remedied with a fundamental transformation of the systems we use in plastic production and use.
“However, businesses can act now to reduce the damage being done by the current system. They can help hasten the creation and adoption of this much better model.”
In June, 12 companies signed up to the MfE-backed New Zealand Plastic Packaging Declaration. The Declaration forms part of the global New Plastics Economy initiative. Signatories include big multinationals like Amcor, Danone, L’Oréal, Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Nestlé. Many of them have also made global commitments.
They were joined by local companies Foodstuffs, Countdown (including SuperValue and Fresh Choice), New Zealand Post and Frucor Suntory. They have committed to use 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their New Zealand operations by 2025 or earlier.
That should be the absolute minimum aspiration for all businesses. But many of us can move much faster.
So what can your business do? You should consider making a commitment and getting involved with the challenge of shifting our plastics system. We all have to take greater responsibility for the plastics we buy and where they ultimately end up. That’s not just about ensuring it ends up in the right bin on your premises.
To get a handle on what that might mean, let’s work through the 6R’s of sustainability and apply them to plastics.
- Rethink/Reinvent Any point at which your business uses plastic is a potential point for innovation. Could you alter the product design, processes, offerings and messaging to reduce or replace plastic? Can you design to ensure all the plastics used are those most readily recycled within the facilities we have in New Zealand?
- Refuse There’s a lot to be said for a little push back into your supply chain, even if you are not a major corporate. Check what you are buying. If it’s got excess plastic packaging on it you don’t need, let the supplier know you won’t go on taking it.
- Reduce Small changes add up. You might start by banning plastic straws in the cafeteria. Or you could reconsider the promotional branded plastic drinks bottles you were going to get. Once you go on the lookout to reduce plastic, you will find all sorts of opportunities.
- Re-use/Repair If your suppliers are delivering loads of plastic packaging to you, then is there any way you can use it? Could you choose reusable zip ties instead of disposable ones for that display you had in mind? How about reusable cutlery for catering, or plastic alternatives from the likes of Innocent Packaging or ecoware?
- Recycle China closing its doors on the world’s rubbish is no excuse to give up on recycling altogether. In the office get your cleaners onside and get some smart bins from someone like Method Recycling. For production and construction waste you will need to work with companies like Junk Run to ensure things are done responsibly. And advisors like 3R can design programmes for your whole business.The limitations of the recycling system are another innovation area. Could your business help create new collection systems and markets for recycled material? How do your products fit into the current recycling system? Where do they really end up? You might be surprised to find out.
- Replace/Rebuy Get into the habit of asking suppliers: “What will I do with this at the end of its life?” If the supplier doesn’t have a comprehensive answer, see if you can find an alternative product or supplier next time round.
This article by Andy Kenworthy was first published in NZ Business magazine.