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How can businesses move faster and smarter on plastic waste?

28 March 2018 – As concern about plastic waste increases and the need for business action mounts, Eliot Whittington, Director of Policy, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, reflects on how UK companies can move faster and smarter to address the issue. He makes the case for an ambitious roadmap to help companies work together in navigating an increasingly crowded landscape, to deliver system-wide changes in policy, public engagement and innovation that deliver the solution to our plastic waste problem.

If modern plastics were unveiled today as a new innovation, they would be rightly hailed as a stunning breakthrough: a family of materials that is cheap, durable, flexible, waterproof and lightweight; able to be deployed in a multitude of ways that allow us to live better lives.

However, and this is not news to any of us, this fabulous invention comes with a flaw: it doesn’t go away. And as the very cheapness, versatility and ease of use which make plastic so wonderful means it is everywhere, that also means the problem of plastic waste is everywhere as well.

Concern about plastic waste has clearly spiked as it has become more and more apparent that such litter is having real impacts, particularly on marine life. We are now beginning to realise that the problem will spiral to huge proportions if dramatic action is not taken.

More and more people are clearly signalling that enough is enough and they want change to happen. The question now is how.

The British government has responded by setting targets to eliminate plastic waste in its 25-year environment plan. Companies such as Asda are marking this change and setting their own individual targets. Other businesses are taking action collectively through initiatives such as New Plastics Economy and WRAP.

There are many options and solutions to tackle these growing concerns. Much plastic is recyclable for example, and more and more businesses are talking about the need to shift the economy to a more circular basis where waste is treated as a resource for new products, not as something to dump and forget.

Similarly there are those who are exploring solving plastics’ design flaw – making compostable or biodegradeable plastics or analogous materials that don’t contribute to our waste problem.

And as well as innovating the material others are looking at the potential to innovate away the products. The ‘plastic bag tax’ has prompted a dramatic shift in favour of reusable shopping bags for example, and ‘refill’ campaigns are seeking to make it easy for people to do without single use plastic bottles.

However these options, alone, will not solve the problem. Plastic may be recyclable, but a lot of it is not recycled. Most plastic products are not made with recycled material and there are limits to how much plastic can be recycled. Compostable plastic is not currently at a level where it can replace plastic in many of its applications, and brings with it the risk of public confusion about how to dispose of plastic waste.

There are choices to be made, priorities to be set and challenges to be surmounted before the plastic waste problem can be solved, and yet it must be solved.

This is why nine companies including Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Nestlé Waters, Danone Waters and Highland Spring Group have joined forces to design and set out an ambitious roadmap for UK soft drinks and bottled water companies to eliminate plastic packaging waste from their supply chains.

The new ‘Future of Plastic Packaging’ initiative, convened by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), will help companies across the soft drinks supply chain get on the front foot and work towards eliminating plastic waste well in advance of the government’s target.

By identifying shared vision and agreeing a roadmap that can help them navigate an increasingly crowded landscape the companies will clarify how they can best tackle this issue, including how they can work together to deliver system-wide changes in policy, public engagement and innovation to deliver the needed solution to our plastic waste problem.

Starting with a commitment to push the boundaries of how quickly the problem can be solved, the ‘Future of Plastic Packaging’ initiative looks to shine a light on how best to act and show business leadership in the face of this pressing problem.

Eliot Whittington is Director of Policy at The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and Director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group (acting). Eliot leads CISL’s work to support business and policy action on climate change. He is the Deputy Director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group – which brings together businesses to work towards a step change in policy and action on climate change.

Eliot has over 15 years’ experience in working to unlock systemic change, including providing policy analysis around climate action for Save the Children and Christian Aid, leading Christian Aid’s UK lobbying work with parliamentarians and political parties, and working on mobilising grassroots campaigning in locations from Addis Ababa to Birmingham.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.