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Mark O’Connor: The plastics crisis - what can charities do?

12 Mar 2020 Expert insight

“It is high time we turn our attention fully to one of the most pressing problems of today – averting the plastic pollution crisis – not only for the health of our planet, but for the wellbeing of people around the world.” David Attenborough

Plastic waste

Public awareness of the pollution of our oceans by plastic waste is greater today than ever. Sir David Attenborough’s programme Blue Planet 2 broadcast stunning pictures of the beauty of the ocean environment. And the disturbing images of the damage caused by the eight million tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in our oceans every year had a profound impact.

The reality is that product packaging relies heavily on plastic, and dealing safely with the waste appears to be an intractable problem. Our inability to handle plastic waste hit the headlines when China, the world’s largest plastic waste importer, announced that it would cease importing plastic waste, a decision that directly impacts on local authorities in the UK. The problem has risen up the political agenda; for example, Commonwealth heads of government have pledged to eliminate avoidable single-use plastic.

How can we achieve a circular economy in plastics so that all plastic is recycled rather than ending up as waste? How far can we get towards eliminating the need for new plastic feedstock manufactured from fossil fuels?

Charities, like other parts of UK society, will come under pressure to explain what they are doing to tackle this threat to the planet. This could be with regard to their own use of plastic products – especially single use plastics – or what changes they are bringing to bear on the companies in which they invest. Are they influencing company’s behaviour?

The UK Plastics Pact and the Clean Seas Campaign

In October 2018, the inaugural UK Plastics Pact Summit took place in London, bringing together industry and research bodies to move us towards a circular economy in plastics. Managed by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) and working with the government-funded UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Plastics Pact initiative is supported by many of the UK’s major food and drink companies and retailers.

Their message: creating a unique pact between governments, businesses, local authorities, NGOs and citizens is the only way to truly transform the UK’s plastics system.

The targets set by the pact are near term, not for some distant point in the future:

  • 100 per cent of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025;
  • 70 per cent of UK plastic packaging to be effectively recycled or composted by 2025 – the percentage as of 2017 stood at just 46 per cent.

Plastics Pact members are asked to make pledges, and many have already done so. For example, Innocent Drinks aims to have its smoothie bottles made from 100 per cent recycled plastic by 2022, a feat not possible with current technology. Procter & Gamble is using plastics that have been reclaimed from beaches. Ocado and Asda are eliminating difficult to recycle black plastic from their packaging.

The pact comes after the UN Environment Clean Seas Campaign (CSC) launched in February 2017. The aim is to engage governments, the general public and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic pollution. The root cause of marine litter is being addressed by targeting the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastic.

The aim is to create change that will dramatically reduce marine litter and the harm it causes. It has led to a number of countries and companies working together and pledging to make improvements. For example, India has pledged to eliminate all single use plastics by 2022, while Volvo has promised that starting in 2025, 25 per cent of the plastics used in its new vehicles will come from recycled sources.

The CSC is now the largest global compact for combating marine litter, with commitments from some 50 nations covering more than 60 per cent of the world’s coastlines. The governments of these nations have imposed new regulations to tackle plastic waste such as pledging to reduce their plastic footprint by 70 per cent by 2025 (Indonesia), bans on plastic bags (Kenya, Chile), straws (Vanuatu) and microbeads (New Zealand).

Working together through coalitions such as the CSC and the UK Plastics Pact is paramount to enabling the transition to a circular economy of plastics. The recycling of packaging waste is an important part of the battle. Thankfully, there are some signs of progress on this front. In the UK, 71.4 per cent of packaging waste was either recycled or recovered. This was above the EU target of 60 per cent and higher than the 64.7 per cent achieved in 2015. In the EU, the packaging waste recycling rate was 67.2 per cent in 2016 compared to 65.8 per cent in 2015. North America saw an overall municipal waste recycling rate of 34.7 per cent and, despite being a smaller percentage than that of the EU and UK, it is a consistently rising figure.

However, despite some improvements in general recycling trends, the battle with regard to plastic waste is far from being won. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has estimated that there could be more plastic in the sea than fish (by weight) by 2050 if business is carried on as usual.

What can charities do?

Plastics has become one of a long list of topics (that include climate change, modern slavery, human rights, workers’ rights and the living wage) that will be of interest to a charity’s service users, employees and donors alike. But what in practice can a charity do, over and above improving its own use of plastics?

In a word – engage! Charities have a powerful voice. One way they can use this voice is to work through their investment managers – who are stewards of their investments. They can encourage their investment managers to fully research the companies in which they invest in and to engage with companies on their behalf.

Epworth’s parent company, the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church, is a signatory to the Plastics Solutions Investors Alliance (PSIA): an international coalition of investors with a combined $1tn of assets under management that engages with publicly traded consumer goods companies on the threat posed by plastic waste and pollution. PSIA has engaged with various corporations such as Nestlé and Unilever on the use of single use plastics and polystyrenes. These engagements have been important in spreading awareness surrounding disposable plastics. This increased awareness has played an important role in developing the policy of governments and companies. In the UK, the government recently announced a ban on plastic straws from 2020, after 80 per cent of people voted in support of a ban during a consultation.

Epworth has also engaged with a number of UK companies directly to challenge them on their use of plastics. This has included the micro plastics that get washed into our water system through cosmetics, clothing and industrial processes. Epworth also contacted companies, including Tesco, regarding microfibres in their clothing ranges. They replied encouragingly, stating they were working with suppliers to understand the science and have part funded a pan-industry initiative, Industry Acting on Microfibres, to drive a co-ordinated response.

We remain committed to helping charities to address their ethical concerns through their investment portfolios. Key to this is engagement to help ensure that companies are aware of our clients’ concerns and to encourage them to adopt appropriate measures to reduce their plastic production and distribution. Initially, charities need to engage with their investment managers and ask them what steps they are taking, on their behalf, to tackle this plastics crisis.

Mark O’Connor is head of business development at Epworth

Charity Finance wishes to thank Epworth for its support with this article 

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