It feels like ever since Blue Planet II was aired at the end of 2017, the issue of single use plastics has risen steadily in the public consciousness. As a diver, I had long been aware of the challenges posed by plastics reaching our oceans through the great work of initiatives like Project Aware but I have to be honest and say that, despite that, I hadn’t quite grasped the scale of the problem.
The facts are simply astounding. It is estimated that 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year, contributing to the staggering 150 million metric tonnes currently washing around in our planet’s most valuable asset. If this problem persists, the WWF estimate by 2050 we’ll have more plastic floating in the ocean than fish (by weight). Big numbers like these are always hard so that's about 22 Empire State Buildings' worth of plastic entering the ocean every year!
The impact on wildlife is staggering – some 50% of marine turtles and 56% of whales/ dolphins/ porpoises have ingested plastic and to bring this even closer to home, this plastic inevitably ends up in our food chain - a recent Belgian study estimated that regular fish eaters consume some 11,000 fragments of micro-plastic every year.
It’s no surprise then that brands are beginning to wake up to the impact their use of plastic has on the environment and also recognising it as a significant consumer issue they need to respond to. Brands like Adidas have put significant weight behind the issue with their Run for the Oceans event and the Parley X running shoe. However, whilst both innovative and admirable, at c. £150 for a pair of running shoes, it is likely to be more mundane day to day changes in consumer behaviour which will make the biggest impact.
A number of UK companies signed up to the UK Plastics Pact to remove single use plastic packaging from their businesses by 2025 with significant industry bodies such as the BRC putting their weight behind it. We’ve also seen announcements from leading brands such as Ikea, the BBC, Morrissons, and Starbucks all making 2020 pledges over the past 2-3 weeks.
As someone who visits many clients’ premises, the first business who really made me sit up and take notice was Iceland. I turned up to meet them in January in the wake of their announcement to eliminate all plastic from their own branded products and was blown away by how quickly they had got behind the initiative internally too, banning all disposable coffee cups from the staff canteen even for visitors. At last it felt here was a brand who was prepared to live their external brand promise.
It was with great interest therefore that I arrived in Osterley last week for the Sky Ocean Rescue event. Sky has made a very public promise to eliminate all single use plastics from its operations, products and supply chain by 2020. Would this be another one of ‘those CSR campaigns’ my cynical inner voice (trained by 20 odd years of corporate life) whispered in one ear?
I have to say I left with nothing but admiration for the scale and breadth of initiatives that Sky has launched and their eagerness to get their partners and suppliers on board with the campaign.
Three key thoughts jumped out at me from the event:-
1. Remove. Re-use. Recycle
This seems such a simple mantra but, for me, is probably the simplest articulation I have heard from any brand on how to address the issue of plastic today i.e.
REMOVE – does the plastic need to be there in the first place? We have become used to so much plastic surrounding us in every day life, it’s easy to assume that it’s essential. From the cable tie to the cellophane protecting a manufacturers logo on a device, we have become trained to believe these are essential / non-negotiable elements of packaging but do they really need to be there?
Never more is this evident than the fruit and veg aisle of any supermarket in this country where we are used to virtually all of our produce coming wrapped in plastic of some sort. It’s only really when you walk into a supermarket overseas that it hits you how different it is in other parts of the world.
RE-USE – if you must use plastic, how can that plastic be re-used to become multi-use rather than single use. The coffee cup is the obvious example here and, like many corporate campuses, Sky has worked hard to remove disposable cups. This simple change for one business has eliminated some 7 million cups per annum.
RE-CYCLE – finally, if disposable plastic is the only way, how can you ensure that plastic is re-cycled. It’s estimated that only 9% of plastic used globally actually gets recycled. Here of course the cynics will point to the many high profile cases of ‘recycling fraud’. In addition, recent legislation changes in China mean that waste that was previously being shipped overseas to be recycled may end up in landfill anyway. As consumers, though, we have to make the change somewhere and it’s clear that many brands could do more to encourage recycling. Most coffee chains for example still have the one all encompassing bin rather than encouraging consumers to ‘split their waste’ by having separate receptacles for lids and cups (Kudos to Whole Foods here).
2. Old Habits Die Hard
Secondly, it struck me just how hard it is to remove every element of plastic from your day to day life. As a family with young children, I’m sure I’m not the only one to whom, the disposable wipe has become a ‘without thought’ part of day to day life for those sticky fingers! It also goes against the grain for so many of our daily routines.
I’ve mentioned the fruit and veg aisle already where you have little choice but to buy pre-packed items in many categories but never is this more in evidence than the convenience food market. Brands such as McDonalds and Starbucks have invested millions in transforming the customer experience through innovations such as mobile ordering or digital self serve kiosks. The challenge is that none of these processes work for anyone wanting to use their own recyclable cup. Yes, the brand can offer incentives (From Starbucks discount to Caffe Nero’s extra stamps) but do these additional bonuses weigh strongly enough when put against the inconvenience factor?
It’s one thing for a company to enforce a no disposable cup policy on their own employees but it’s quite another to expect consumers to dance to your tune, especially if the experience is deemed inferior.
3. Think End to end and set targets to match
What impressed me about Sky Ocean Rescue was the clarity of focus the business which, as a result had driven teams to rise to the challenge. The task of aligning a big business behind a project such as this shouldn’t be underestimated but it was clear that everyone from the product team to the facilities team was absolutely committed to hitting their target
Nowhere was this more in evidence than the re-design of the packaging for the Sky set top box. Every element of the industrial design had been considered to ensure the device and packaging work in perfect harmony to reduce the need for plastic. The sheer number of iterations the team went through and the test and learn approach they followed was an incredible testament to a team absolutely committed to eliminating plastic from their part of the business. It just shows what can be achieved when a team has a clear goal and is motivated to hit it. Whereas previously each box generated some 21g of single use plastic, it has now all been replaced through a combination of cardboard, pulp and cork.
However, there is still so much more to do. Sky estimate that there is c. five times more plastic involved in bringing components into the warehouse than in the final product shipped to the consumer. For anyone who has ever worked in a warehouse it’s easy to see where this stacks up – from shrink wrap to single use protective hats and shoes – plastic is everywhere and it will take a concerted effort from everyone in the supply chain to remove it.
This is clearly a Herculean task but I left the Sky event feeling that with clear targets, a curious desire to question everything and business-wide ownership, many more businesses could help drive down those 8 million tonnes we spread into the Ocean each year…