How ocean plastics will change the waste stream forever

11 May 2020

These extraordinary times are giving us an opportunity to reflect on some important issues, and how we need to place our environment at the centre of building a better future together. Senior Consultant, George Cole, looks at how ocean plastics will drive part of the change that is needed.

14 million people tuned in to watch Blue Planet II in 2017, and with just two minutes of footage it thrust ocean plastics to the forefront of environmental concerns alongside global heating and deforestation. Those working in the industry know that we have been tackling the issue for much longer, but in the last three years the weight of public pressure has grown exponentially. We are now starting to see how public opinion on this issue is fundamentally changing the products we buy and the waste we create.

A plastic ocean

David Attenborough has since thrown his full weight behind environmental campaigning, and other documentaries have followed suit with even more disturbing images of the impacts of ocean plastics.

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I recently showed this video at the North East Recycling Forum and asked the audience for their reactions. The words they gave were devastating, saddening, and even sensationalist. Footage like this is now common on social media and streaming services such as Netflix, and it is influencing consumers not only in how they manage their own waste, but in what products they buy and what they demand of brands and retailers.

So where is this attention being directed?

A force for change

Litter brand surveys, such as the Break Free From Plastic 2019 survey, name and shame the worst offenders. The scale of the volunteer effort which contributed to this one audit reflects how strongly people feel about ocean plastics: roughly 850 clean-up events over 51 countries and 6 continents, 72,000 volunteers, and 475,000 pieces of plastic collected.

Image credit: Break Free From Plastic

QUESTION: What products do these companies make?
ANSWER: pretty much every fast-moving consumer good we purchase today. Consumer pressure is a powerful force and brand owners are taking notice, as you can see in the video below.

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Here are my three reflections on this Coca-Cola video:

#1 – Coca-Cola has made food and drinks packaging using marine plastic, which is probably the worst, most contaminated source of plastic to be used in the most critical of applications: food safety. This is what we call a ‘story plastic’, using a poor quality or expensive plastic because it has an engaging story. This isn’t going to solve ocean plastics, but it is a powerful way to attract attention to your actions on plastic waste.

#2 – This is achieved in partnership with Ioniqa, whose ‘proprietary circular technology’ using depolymerisation sounds a lot like chemical recycling to me. This suggests Coca-Cola and other big brands are investing in recycling technologies as a response to concerns about marine litter and single-use plastics.

#3 – Coca-Cola has committed to manufacture all bottles using 50% recycled plastic content by 2030. This is by far the most important action that brand-owners are taking at the moment. Assuring minimum recycled content in products creates a stable market for recycled material (see our research for OECD on this), decoupling it from price competition with virgin plastics, and could be a major driving force in improving the recycling industry, valuing resources, and reducing ocean plastics.

A global movement

Coca-Cola is not alone in taking this issue seriously. Numerous partnerships, platforms, agreements, and investment funds have been set up in recent years, joining public, private and third sector organisations, with hundreds of millions of pounds invested by industry and governments. The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is one of the largest, and counts Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Dow, and Defra amongst its partners.

The recycled content commitment from Coca-Cola also echoes the UK Plastics Pact. The Plastics Pact brings together different stakeholders and requires commitments from brand owners and retailers to take action on problem plastics. It is part of a global Plastics Pact network coordinated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and this is where action on ocean plastics really makes a splash. The Foundation was started by Dame Ellen MacArthur after sailing solo around the globe and seeing the extent of ocean plastics. The Foundation has since been at the forefront of circular economy thinking, and through the Plastics Pact is targeting plastics directly.

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The rest of the world is now moving fast on this issue. In the past year alone I have supported international donors and the Scottish government to tackle ocean plastics through the private sector, worked with a major UK supermarket developing a plastics policy to target priority products, and supported English, Welsh and Rwandan governments in developing legislation on single-use plastics.

What is next?

This is not going to stop at plastic straws and cotton bud sticks. Our concern over ocean plastics is the driving force to fundamentally change the products we buy, the waste we create, and even the way in which we relate to brands. I spoke with one of the major brand owner companies listed above, who told me that they view sustainability as vital for their company to stay relevant in the next decade, and that any products that are not delivering environmental and social benefits will likely be dropped.

We can expect to see innovation in waste management, packaging, service delivery and business model in response to the ocean plastics crisis. I don’t know if Netflix has used its algorithms to deliver targeted advertising, but recently this advert for the paper wrapper Yes! Snack bar has been on hot rotation in between my episodes of Explained and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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Who would have thought five years ago that we would be seeing paper wrappers replacing plastic film and foil? The audience at the North East Recycling Forum very astutely asked whether this wrapper will be accepted at a paper mill, and to be honest I don’t know if it will, but the first steps on a path are often a little shaky.  If all the brands listed above follow suit, then we will see that fundamental shift in the waste stream, with benefits for industry and society as a whole.