Managing Single-use Plastic Consumption through CSR Data Management

plastic pollution; reusable; single-use plastics; CSR; zero waste; circular economy

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So far in 2018 there has been a spike in public interest and concern over plastic pollution, driven in part by a swell in media coverage following coverage of the issue in David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet II. The UK Government have been vocal on the topic, but policy responses have been weak. In contrast, several prominent corporate organisations have made pledges to rapidly combat their organisation’s plastic footprint. Here, we briefly outline the problem of single-use plastic pollution, highlight relevant government and business responses and, importantly, approach the issue of how to measure and manage single-use plastics in business operations.

The Problem of Single-use Plastics  

A recent report from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser1 projected that the amount of plastic in the ocean could treble between 2015 and 2025. The full effects are not understood, but there is growing evidence of plastic harming sea creatures and restricting their movement, as well as polluting beaches, and possibly even threatening human health2. As well as being environmentally damaging, these plastics are economically wasteful. Today, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use3.

Plastics are an incredibly valuable resource, being versatile, light, durable, and cheap to produce - attributes which have led to their proliferation in just about every industry and society on Earth. However, extensive use of plastics as such is not the sole cause of the problem. Rather, it is the decisions made about how to produce, use and dispose of plastic items that result in excessive waste and pollution problems. Around 40 per cent of production is of single-use items, which are not compatible with recycling2. Single use plastics are commonly used in product packaging, placing responsibility on product producers - not just consumers - to solve the plastic waste problem.

Weak Government Response Creates Opportunity for Corporate Leadership

Governments have been vocal about combatting plastic waste. For example, the UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan4 proposes to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, and they are seeking advice on implementing taxes or changes to reduce the amount of single-use plastic waste. This follows the implementation of the plastic carrier bag 5p levy in 2015, which was highly successful and resulted in a reduction in consumption of 85 %. The European Commission’s European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy5 is more ambitious, and pledges to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030.

However, given the timelines specified in both the UK and EU targets, neither appear ambitious relative to industry leading voluntary CSR standards.

Sky has launched its Ocean Rescue campaign6 and has pledged to phase out the use of single-use plastics in its operations, products, and supply chain by 2020. They have stopped using disposable water bottles, replacing them with reusables, and removed single-use plastics from packaging for all their new products. Moreover, the corporation are investing heavily in innovation and entrepreneurship, having committed £25 m over the next five years to R&D combatting plastic waste.  

The BBC, too, plans to ban single use plastics from its operations by 20207. Plastic cups and cutlery will be removed across BBC sites by the end of 2018, ending the use of around 2m plastic cups used by visitors and staff each year at its sites, starting with a pilot at its Salford location running since February 2018. Discussions will take place over the coming months with suppliers and service providers to assess when further changes can be made to cut single-use plastic in other parts of operations such as coffee cups, packaging of products the corporation buys, and catering on location.

Measuring to Manage Single-use Plastics

A landmark report published by UNEP back in 2014 highlighted corporations leading in the drive to measure, manage and report on plastic consumption. Those identified include the consumer electronics giants Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, and Sony, all of which have strong CSR programmes around circular economy. Notably, however, there was no one standard identified for measuring and managing plastics. Indeed, efforts in CSR reporting for plastic are not well developed compared to other areas such as GHG reporting.

One important initiative, Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP), encourages the measurement, disclosure and management of plastic to improve accountability on its manufacture, use and disposal8. The initiative was launched in 2010 and has been requesting disclosures from major plastic-using companies since 2011, principally in the consumer goods and technology sectors. High profile supporters of PDP include The Co-operative Asset Management, Credit Suisse, and UNEP, and organisations that have disclosed directly to PDP include LUSH Cosmetics, Paragon Communications, and San Francisco Airport.

Our work at SustainIt is underpinned by the principle of that ‘if you can measure it, you can manage it.’ We design and implement data management solutions for sustainability initiatives with corporate organisations, which includes in-depth mapping of information requirements and materiality assessment through to the deployment of powerful software solutions that help collate, analyse, and report CSR data. Our past/ present clients include some of the world’s leading businesses, such as Mondelez, British Land, VF Corp, HSBC, and Toyota. Through these partnerships we have developed a rich experience of supporting prominent organisations to develop plans for the measurement and management of waste materials, which places us in an excellent position to assist large businesses in delivering their single-use plastics commitments.

James MacPherson

References

  1. Government Chief Scientific Adviser (2018). Foresight Future of the Sea. Government Office for Science. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/future-of-the-sea#project-report. Accessed 28/03/2018.
  2. Thomson, R.C. (2017). Future of the Sea: Plastic Pollution. Government Office for Science, July 2017. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/future-of-the-sea#project-report. Accessed 28/03/2018.
  3. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action. Available: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/new-plastics-economy-catalysing-action. Accessed 28/03/2018.
  4. UK Government 25 Year Environment Plan 2018. A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/673203/25-year-environment-plan.pdf. Accessed: 28/03/2018.
  5. European Commission 2018. A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. Available: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/pdf/plastics-strategy.pdf Accessed 28/03/2018.
  6. Sky (2018). About Sky Ocean Rescue [web page]. Available: https://skyoceanrescue.com/about-sky-ocean-rescue/. Accessed 28/03/2018.
  7. BBC (2018). BBC to ban single use plastics by 2020 after Blue Planet II [web page]. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43051153. Accessed 28/03/2018.
  8. Plastic Disclosure Project (PDP) http://plasticdisclosure.org/
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