22 February, 2018

My five-year-old asked me what I did for a job: “Mummy writes in a newspaper. Do you write about rubbish?” It takes the elevator pitch to a whole new level. Kids have an amazing ability to question objectively in trying to understand what is going on. Our sector is complicated, fact. We work with customers to enable positive management of materials resources. And one of our most complicated topics is plastics.

At present you cannot turn on a device or read a newspaper without being hit with more coverage on the need to “deal” with the “problem” that is plastics. And the plastic straw (allegedly soon to be banned in a country near you) that broke the camel’s back, and which has now put plastics front and centre of the public, political and business consciousness, was the national treasure Sir David Attenborough and his Blue Planet II series.

This spotlight on plastics is to be welcomed. But we are now living in an age where not only news and information are at our finger tips, but also fake news and online echo chambers. This means the importance of debates being based on robust evidence is paramount. Evidence is key to our sector. Robust evidence and insight are the routes to finding answers that can facilitate engagement that will lead to lasting positive behaviour change.

Leadership is important and it’s good news that plastics feature heavily in Defra’s 25-year Environment Plan. However, as others have written, it is important that action is taken to actually address the various targets and strategies it refers to. One area that requires action right now is the development of a coherent resource data plan. Hopefully the promised Resources and Waste Strategy, to be published later in 2018, will address that need.

Now is certainly the time to seize this moment of aligning political, business and public sentiment whilst at the same time ensuring the right stakeholders across the whole value chain are involved in implementing change. Successful collaborations on plastics across relevant sectors will be key. Imagine squeezing a balloon. When you pinch one point, the air pops up somewhere else and this is not always where you expect. If discussions on plastics involve the whole value chain, we can identify the areas where those unexpected issues could crop up when the system is ‘pinched’. That means including multiple stakeholders such as material technologists, waste management companies, local government, other secondary material representatives and importantly the consumer.

Deposit return schemes (DRS) are an interesting example. It’s a topic generating significant debate and is seen by many as a solution to reducing plastic bottle litter. But if we add a new system to collect plastic bottles, how will residents respond if asked to recycle in two different ways? Will this ‘pinch’ cause the desired result for all materials, or will it introduce unintended consequences? There is research taking place both north and south of the Scottish border and we will continue to provide our views and insights as the discussion evolves.

So where do we start? Resource Futures do a significant amount of waste composition work, and our empirical evidence collected over the past decade illustrates that all types of plastic consumption have been increasing steadily. The data we collect helps organisations make informed decisions on topics such as waste collection strategies, infrastructure and levels of risk. Data can also drive decisions around communication strategies. This will be vital as simple and clear messaging to multiple audiences will be crucial to ensure more plastics of the right type are captured. Communication is an area of rapid innovation that is evolving quickly, and the sector must consider all new opportunities alongside traditional channels to magnify and support change.

So, coming back to my five-year old’s question… he looked at me blankly when I told him I help people find better solutions to making, using and throwing things away. He interrupted me and said, “Daddy, you love bins don’t you. That’s why you always take photos of them on holiday”. Perhaps his ability to step back and view the whole picture is what we must strive to achieve when working together for better solutions.

This article by Sam Reeve, CEO, Resource Futures appeared in the CIWM Online Journal

Image source: CIWM Online Journal