As a child of the 90s, Danish pop sensation Aqua brainwashed me into positive connotations of plastic products at an early age. As we have become adults, my generation has roundly turned its back on the suggestion that young girls growing up should aspire to be a “Barbie girl, in a Barbie world.”
In any event, like the Barbie girl mould, the “life in plastic – it’s fantastic” mantra of that (I’m sorry, amazing) 90s school disco stalwart, has also failed to stand the test of time.
Plastic pollution has become increasingly high profile in recent years, with the introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge in Scotland being the most widely known move to combat the issue. There are five trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans today, and a truckload of plastic waste enters the ocean every single minute.
The impact on marine life has been significant (any Blue Planet II fan knows that), but less well acknowledged is the potential impact on human life. There are fears that plastic entering the ocean food chain subsequently enters the human food chain, with the potential to cause a number of health problems.
A significant aspect of plastic pollution is single use packaging, which is the most common use of plastic. Packaging accounts for a quarter of the 245 million tonnes of plastic used globally. The second largest category of plastic used globally is PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. These types of bottles are most commonly used for soft drinks and can take around 450 years to decompose in the ocean.
The issue has prompted activity both at Westminster and Holyrood.
The Environment Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed that legislation will be introduced banning the sale and manufacture of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.
Following the successful introduction of the plastic bag charge in 2014, the Scottish Government has unveiled plans to introduce a deposit return scheme for plastics and other single use products. The scheme is a feature of the Scottish Government’s legislative programme as part of the proposed Climate Change Bill.
As the plastic issue becomes critical, governmental intervention is bound to increase. Rather aptly, it seems this issue isn’t going to disappear quickly.
What then for manufacturers who are regularly targeted by environmental groups for their use of plastic?
If the sea change is inevitable, prudent businesses will be ahead of the game. Taking steps now to reduce the amount of plastic in manufacturing processes and supply chains is not only good forward planning, but helps turn what is a potentially reputational issue into a good news story.
As consumers become more educated on the issues of plastic pollution, they will be more discerning in the products they buy. Proactively taking steps to reduce plastic use could increase consumer confidence in a brand as this issue gathers pace, while also preparing for the seemingly inevitable regulation in the use of plastic.
In addition, any harm to human health caused by plastic in the food chain could result in costly litigation against those companies found to be main offenders.
Taking steps to mitigate their contribution to the levels of plastic in the sea could bolster any response to such a claim.
Some manufacturers are already taking these steps. Scottish environmentalists Fidra ran a campaign which highlighted that 13,500 waste cotton buds were found on one 100m stretch of a beach on the west coast of Scotland. In response, Johnson & Johnson changed their cotton buds from plastic to degradable paper sticks.
J&J then publicised the issue, encouraging the UK’s main supermarkets to commit to undertake the same change by the end of 2017, with their pledges now listed on Fidra’s Cotton Bud Project website and covered in national press.
Tech heavyweight Dell has received global plaudits for its efforts in tackling plastic pollution. It used computer modelling to highlight hotspots where plastics would enter the sea, and was then able to physically intercept these waste plastics in rivers, waterways and beaches in Haiti for reuse in its packaging.
Dell now ships its computers in packaging trays that are 25 per cent recycled ocean plastic (the remaining 75 per cent of packaging trays being made out of recycled polyethylene plastics), with the packaging providing educational information to raise global awareness of the ocean plastics problem. Dell has now pledged that 100 per cent of its packaging will be made from sustainable sources by 2020 as part of its “Legacy of Good” commitment.
There will be opportunities in all industries to consider how manufacturers, distributors and retailers can reduce their use of plastic. J&J and Dell have already shown how to turn the situation around.
Perhaps Aqua were being ironic. If they were, it certainly went over the head of my ten year old self. Either way, it’s no longer a Barbie world – companies should take steps now, to turn the plastic debate into something far more attractive.