5 ways for businesses to cut down on their plastic waste

Turtle about to eat plastic bag
Shutterstock Rich Carey
Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last six months, you'll know by now that plastic use is at the top of every sustainability manager's priority list.

What might remain less clear is how to tackle it. Yesterday's long-read investigation considered the potential pitfalls of a strategy dictated by knee-jerk responses and dominated by blanket bans, but where should overstretched and under-resourced sustainability and environmental executives start when drawing up an effective alternative approach?

We spoke to some of the United Kingdom's leading experts on plastics, waste and resource efficiency, to gather some advice for firms battling to win the war on plastic waste.

1. Reduce, reuse, recycle

This adage came up time and again during conversations with waste experts: Good plans start with cutting down and simplifying a firm's plastic footprint ahead of anything else.

"It's quite boring but it's actually what everyone seems to be missing out, which is to just go back to the waste hierarchy to start with," said Trewin Restorick, co-founder and CEO of environmental charity Hubbub. "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Take a proper long hard look — what is the plastic that is not essential, that can be taken out either by design or different purchasing? How can we maximize reuse of the packaging that we have, and then what is the recycling route that this can go down? Just follow that hierarchy."

"It is not just about recycling," said Sanders Defruyt, New Plastics Economy lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. "While recycling is part of the solution, we won't recycle our way out of this situation."

This principle extends beyond the headline issues of packaging waste. Many other types of plastic products used by businesses every day can be made more sustainable by shifting procurement practice to favor reusable or recycled goods, said Colin Church, CEO of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM).

"Specifying remanufactured items, choosing more modular products that be repaired or upgraded more easily, specifying recycled content in ducting or pipes, for example, will also contribute to a more sustainable approach to plastics," he said.

2. Think through the consequences

As BusinessGreen highlighted, eliminating plastics actually could spell problems for the planet. Sustainability managers should stay alive to the risk, particularly when considering removing plastics from food packaging or for products with lengthy transportation routes.

Bridget Jackson, corporate sustainability director at PwC, advised firms think through life cycle analyses to consider a product's overall footprint. "Even if you are not mathematically trying to run a life cycle analysis… you can use the mindset of lifecycles to try and understand the trade-offs between one environmental impact and another," she suggested.

Restorick concurred. "Rather than designing a piece of packaging purely on what firms think they can sell, or what they think the consumer wants or needs, it's taking that into account but thinking about the circularity of it, thinking about what happens at the end of its life, and building that into the design process," he said.

3. Talk to the waste industry

It's no use adopting expensive new compostable cups or biodegradable bottles if you can't find a waste contractor willing to deal with them. "Whoever is making the purchasing decisions should be talking to the recycling industry before they make their purchasing decisions, so that they make sure whatever they are buying has a sustainable route for it to be managed once they have finished with it," advised Restorick.

CIWM's Church also thinks communication with the waste industry is essential. After phasing out all avoidable plastic waste, he advised businesses to work with their waste contractor to optimize recycling — such as by pre-sorting waste more effectively. For example, PwC and Bloomberg offices feature waste stations, prompting workers to segregate more effectively.

"The options will depend on the volume and type of plastic waste you generate but if you don't have the discussion, you may be missing out on better ways to deal with it," Church said.

PwCPwC has "waste hubs" in its offices to encourage employees to thoroughly sort their waste | Credit: PwC

4. Don't forget the polar bears

It's easy to get caught up in the storm of concern over plastic packaging and its impact on marine life around the world. But don't let the plastics debate override internal conversations about tackling climate change — the greater threat to all wildlife on earth.

"While I am fully in support of the great initiatives that highlight the problems for wildlife, for turtles, as a result of the plastic pollution [debate] we have suddenly forgotten about the polar bears who are losing their territory in the Arctic," said Santiago Navarro, CEO and co-founder of wine start-up Garcon Wines.

5. Shift the economics

The best, most innovative solutions to cutting waste may not be the most glamorous. One of the most effective interventions in the coffee cup debate this year has come from Costa, which last month unveiled a plan to guarantee to recycle up to 500 million coffee cups a year by 2020, equivalent to its annual sales of takeaway drinks. To do this, it is paying a $93.18 supplement per ton of coffee cups to waste collectors, pushing the value of a ton of cups up to almost $160. It may not have generated the same headlines as talk of "latte levies" and "keep cups," but the investment makes it financially viable for waste collectors to put in place the infrastructure and processes to collect, sort and transport coffee cups to recycling plants, Costa said. The initiative may be more complex and less media-friendly than a simple ban, but is far more likely to accelerate industry-wide change.

Similarly, Starbucks is exploring the impact of shifting the economics of takeaway cups for the consumer. Earlier this year it launched a trial in London, charging customers an extra 6 cents for a takeaway cup. Early results are promising — according to Starbucks, reusable cup use has jumped 150 percent in participating stores. In short, it is a strategy that focuses on reducing and reusing, before recycling.

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