Eco-Showboating: Peter Goodwin is Co-Founder of Simply Cups and co-cre8.
A version of this article first appeared in Packaging News.
As someone who has been collaborating to build momentum in the UK for more than a decade to address our ineffective resource management systems, if you think I’m overjoyed by the level of media exposure and interest the subject is now receiving – think again.
Whilst the undoubted positive from greater global awareness is the absolute eradication of doubt that human and planetary collapse is at stake, the downside is that we are plummeting rapidly into an era of Eco-Showboating.
Now, I’m not going to lay claim to this term, but its definition, ‘performing in an ostentatiously sensational manner calculated to draw attention and show off’ is spot on in describing the zeitgeist.
We all know and wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that we must eradicate the negative impact of materials, such as plastics, on the environment immediately. However, I am increasingly uncomfortable with terms such as ‘plastic free’, given that they are becoming labels for our complete societal lack of responsibility and systemic thinking, both of which are totally independent of application or material type.
That’s Eco-Showboating: not only are these claims made without a real understanding of the unintended consequences, which can do more harm than good, but also they are made in a way that demonises a material that still has a significant role to play in our society. At the same time, all those who purportedly lead their individual crusades, frantically jostle for the headlines to secure their legacies for saving our planet.
The ultimate example of Eco-Showboating was provided by the organisers of Glastonbury Festival
The ultimate example of Eco-Showboating recently was provided by the organisers of Glastonbury Festival, (main picture). For all their well-intentioned ‘plastic free’ claims and the appearance of Sir David Attenborough on stage to underpin credibility, you can’t help but wonder if he was kicking himself because of the ensuing media coverage.
Not only did the event fall drastically short of its ‘plastic free’ ambition, but the learned words of one of the most pre-eminent advocates of sustainability had been forgotten in goldfish like fashion as the mass exodus was characterized by an overwhelming lack of responsibility on the part of festival goers to clean up after themselves.
Consumer Behaviour: Eco-Showboating
If we’re truly going to solve these pressing issues, we must firstly acknowledge the parts that customer behaviour and consumerism play. When asked the question, very few are going to argue against the case for preserving the planet for future generations, yet ask them to change the very fabric of their lives to do so and suddenly, reality hits home.
Has society reached such a point where tents are now so cheap, (ironically one of the benefits of plastic), that they are deemed and, in some cases, even advertised as, a ‘single use’ item. Even more worrying is the fact that this event is attended by the affluent, eco-conscious middle classes, who are supposed to be the group most committed to the cause! If that’s the best that this demographic can achieve, then what chance have the rest of us got?
In defense of the consumer, we can say that an apathy to recycle is understandable and somewhat acceptable.
For years, packaging producers and brands have created the illusion that there is no issue to speak of. A more honest approach would have been to say that we are passing our local problems of low quality, co-mingled waste via the easiest and most cost-effective route; however I suggest this would not have won any marketing awards.
Worse still, when the disposal route was export to the far east and developing nations, who don’t have adequate infrastructure (economic, social or environmental) to deal with it, our ‘recycling’ has gradually found its way back to us, in the form of ocean waste.
Lack of transparency is, therefore, a major issue and one that needs to be rectified immediately if we are to regain the consumer trust we need of we’re to get out of this mess.
Yet I’m not convinced that this can be achieved and that’s all down to over-enthusiastic Eco-Showboating.
Major corporations are still making claims such as ‘all products will be recycled and composted by 2025’, even though there is little strategic thinking about what infrastructure is required to achieve this and when all the consumer really wants to know is whether the item will actually be recycled or composted.
This issue is crystallised in the terminology used by the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) scheme for the last 10 years.
Whilst I absolutely subscribe to the fact that all consumer packaging should display a common message to inform the user of the actions that need to be taken after use – and that the existing OPRL scheme is the obvious vehicle for this – we must, first and foremost, ensure that the message itself is not misleading.
Widely Recycled IS Eco-Showboating
When I have asked consumers for their interpretation of the ‘Widely Recycled’ label, the response has firstly been that they do not make the distinction between domestic and commercial waste systems and secondly, almost every time, that they believe the item will be recycled if placed into the requisite bin. Not so!
The claim made by the ‘award winning scheme’ solely means that over 75% of councils accept the item in domestic kerb-side recycling. The statistic is nothing more than an indicator of collection.
As highlighted by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall during the recent ‘War on Waste’ series, there is a huge difference between collecting material for recycling and actual recycling.
How many of these ‘Widely Recycled’ products ever get recycled – sandwich boxes for example? If we are to take the consumer on this much needed journey with us, then we have to come clean quickly – or risk deepening the apathy and cynicism that is undoubtedly building.
Putting the consumer to one side, how do we change the deep-rooted systemic issues we are facing as a result of exporting our problems for a sustained period of time? In my opinion, we immediately need to establish for which applications and in which contexts re-use offers a greater environmental benefit than single use. For all the single use items remaining, we need to understand subsequently how these are recovered and returned back to the system, either as the same product (under a closed loop system), or via an up-cycleing scheme into a useful product of the same or higher value.
Whilst government policy has failed UK recyclers and reprocessors over recent years, it must be acknowledged that proposals for extended producer responsibility, a minimum threshold of recycled content and consistency nationwide, are a welcome step in the right direction, assuming correct implementation and delivery.
In fact, pending legislation, that will require a minimum of 30% recycled content in single use plastic packaging by 2022, should be a welcome relief for the UK Plastics Pact, given the historic failure of voluntary agreements to support investment in the required collection systems and reprocessing infrastructure.
Whilst documented success of the Pact to date includes the removal of plastic cutlery for ‘food to go’ purchases (although notably still being sold en masse for parties and picnics in the adjacent aisles), the mere mention of taxation by the government has resulted in certain recycled food grade polymers exceeding their virgin equivalents by over 25%, when there was a significant struggle to even reach parity only a few years ago.
This guaranteed demand will now, I suggest, unlock viable investment opportunities, which should see much-needed impetus for UK reprocessing and the ability for us finally to deal with the problem locally.
Once achieved, this will also surely bring about the end of the term ‘single use’, particularly in the case of plastics, the value of which can be perpetually realized with only minimal process loss.
In my opinion, this delivers what many of us are actually seeking. Our aim is not a world that is ‘plastic free’ world, but one in which systems are in place to ensure responsible use – recovering post-consumer to retain the commercial value of the material. That way, no social or environmental damage will ensue.
If at the same time we can also make it simple and believable for consumers to fully engage and support this common goal, then we can deliver real tangible benefit for businesses, society and the planet and consign unhelpful Eco-Showboating back to whence it came.
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