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11 June 2018

Sustainability - for the many?

 

Sometime last Tuesday, a hashtag #PlasticFreeDay appeared on my Twitter feed. I was vaguely aware that it was World Environment Day, but, like so many eco-days, this new one had passed me by entirely (as I read the eco-press daily, this says more about the ineffectiveness of the plethora of awareness days, hours and weeks than my ignorance). So I did a bit of googling and found that the organisers wanted 250 million people would go 'plastic-free' for a day.

My immediate reactions were 1. how on earth could anyone do this?, and 2. why would you want to?

My kids love my bacon and pea pasta, so let's say I've promised them that on Plastic Free Day. Of the four major ingredients, I could use chopped tomatoes from a tin rather than a carton, ditto peas (although they taste awful compared to frozen peas from a bag), but bacon and pasta? I can't think of anybody who sells pasta in anything other than a plastic wrapping, so I'd have to make it myself. Even if I went to a traditional butcher, they'd wrap sliced bacon in a piece of plastic, otherwise bacon juice would ooze into the rest of my shopping. Sorry boys, treat's off, because, y'know, a hashtag.

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9 February 2018

I have no intention of going plastic-free, and nor should you

I cannot recall a single television programme in my lifetime which has had a bigger impact on public discourse than Blue Planet II (Cathy Come Home was 5 years before I was born). As I've commented before, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with the public and business to make a big leap forward in Sustainability.

The only problem is that the War on Plastic is tending towards a 'plastic is evil' meme. As Julia Hailes, author of the groundbreaking Green Consumer Guide wrote last month, we're risking throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Plastic is a fabulous material – light, durable, flexible – provided it is in the right place, i.e. not our oceans, hedgerows or landfills.

Shifting to loose vegetables, for example, could cause more waste problems than it solves. Plastic packaging fulfils an important role in minimising food waste – never mind the carbon impact of that waste, we'd need much more farmland to feed us which means impacting on natural habitats.

Likewise, when my client Interface were looking for sustainable raw materials for carpet tiles to replace virgin nylon, they could not find a source of 'natural' material that they could exploit sustainably at the scale required. Instead, they concluded the best raw material for new carpet was... drumroll... old carpet.

The impacts of going plastic-free would be enormous. So the big post-Blue Planet II message must be promoting the circular economy. Not eradicating plastic, but designing products and systems to capture it post-use and use it over and over again.

 

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29 January 2018

Sustainability is no place for the fickle

I saw a blog post last week entitled something along the lines of "Forget Carbon. The Latest Crisis Is Plastics." This would have annoyed me massively at the best of times, but particularly so given that Kick Ass Idea no 1 of my 12 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2018 webinar last week was "No Fads".

The point I was making was to avoid the entreaties of those constantly pumping out the 'latest thing in Sustainability' – a couple of years ago it was all about Creating Shared Value, then we were told that mindfulness was a prerequisite of Sustainability, now people are desperately trying to work out how blockchain can deliver Sustainability. This flighty faddism over techniques is distracting enough without people saying that, because the full scale of the plastics problem has hit the public consciousness, climate change is no longer a priority.

That, my friends, is highly dangerous bullshit.

One problem becoming clearer does not make another disappear. While it's almost impossible to compare two environmental problems objectively, my subjective opinion is that climate change remains the head and shoulders above the rest purely on the scale and range of its impacts – from extreme weather through sea-level rises to ocean acidification – there is no hiding place.

But, whatever your view on their relative scales, it is not beyond the wit of the human race to tackle two major problems at the same time. In fact one solution – the circular economy – will go a long, long way to tackle both the climate and ocean plastic crises.

 

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29 November 2017

OK, so I was wrong on the plastic bag tax

Regular readers will know that I have been somewhat dismissive of the plastic bag tax (to put it mildly...) Well, hands up, I was wrong.

Ish.

My case was that plastic bags are such a tiny part of our carbon footprint, that the regulatory effort to tax plastic bags would be better spent, say, requiring higher insulation standards. But two things have happened since the plastic bag tax was introduced in the UK.

  1. Increased understanding of the scale of the problem of ocean plastics, particularly the feedback loops that mean plastic fragments are now being found in drinking water. The issue is much more critical than (almost) everybody thought.
  2. Rather than being a token gesture, the plastic bag tax has opened up the political path to further action on all single-use plastics (and arguably other eco-actions) as promoted by the unlikely green champions Michael Gove and Philip Hammond in recent weeks.

The latter is a really difficult one to predict. I get regular complaints from industry contacts that their organisation's leadership likes to have a green project or two to wheel out periodically to show they are doing something before they are put back in the cupboard and life goes on as before.

On the other hand, as with the plastic bag tax, a relatively minor achievement can lead to a snowballing effect. It's the same with employee engagement for Sustainability – getting people involved through 'quick wins' can help open minds to more radical change. But the leadership must be there to keep rolling the snowball down the hill every time the natural momentum stalls.

The difference then, as always in Sustainability, is leadership.

 

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27 November 2017

Save the world, today!

This morning I was out plodding around my usual Monday run route when I spotted a couple of plastic packing straps on the pavement just 100m from our house and, more importantly, just  10m from the river. I wasn't hitting any PBs today (I cycled 50+ miles yesterday and the legs were heavy) so I stopped and picked them up.

I'd already fulfilled my personal pledge to pick up one piece of plastic litter a day, but I really hate plastic loops like these or beer six-pack rings. If you've been watching Blue Planet II, you'll know this is exactly the kind of litter that entangles sea life. I know this is a tiny speck of the millions of tonnes of plastic litter entering our oceans, but I'm damned if I'm going to use that as an excuse not to pull my weight.

When I got in and sat at my desk, I opened an e-mail quoting Anne Frank thus:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

I'm usually impervious to motivational quotes, but I thought that was a wonderfully uplifting sentence. Yes, it will take the combined forces of industry and government to deliver a sustainable future, but there is nothing stopping any of us doing something positive right now. And, as implied by the tragic young Anne, you don't need anybody's permission, just do it. It could just be questioning business as usual, or it could be organising a litter pick or it could be setting up a staff environmental group.

And you might just inspire somebody else...

So what are you going to do today?

 

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2 October 2017

Oiling the engine of Sustainability

GK St Anns Litter PickWith all the concern about ocean plastic of late, I've been revitalising my personal pledge to pick up at least one piece of plastic litter every day. In fact most days I pick at least a dozen, and I'm now getting weirdly obsessed with it. I seriously can't walk past a plastic bag without twitching to pick it up, but if I tried to get every piece of litter I saw, it would be a full time undertaking.

I know that my efforts are just a (inappropriate metaphor klaxon) drop in the ocean, but I find that the very act of picking up some litter makes me feel positive and, rather than making me think 'I've done my bit, now business as usual', it continually focusses my brain on this perennial drip, drip of plastics into our eco-system. Experience is always more visceral than anecdote.

Last month, I gave a presentation to one of my clients on the first phase of our Sustainability Champions initiation project. At the end of the initial training workshop, I had challenged each of the Champions to pledge to change one thing in their workplace to make it more sustainable. I then followed up on the pledges a month later to see how they had got on.

All the pledges were pretty mundane, incremental improvements which would hardly make a dent in the targets we had set in their Sustainability Strategy, but that was beside the point, I explained, it was the forward motion at the sharp end of the business that was important. I used a metaphor I coined a couple of years ago:

"Champions should be seen as the oil in the engine, not the fuel."

This was quoted back at me (approvingly!) during the discussion.

Identifying and implementing quick wins is a way of keeping that oil fresh. Of course it shouldn't be expected to, or distract from, the major changes required to deliver Sustainability; the knack is to do both.

 

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17 July 2017

Plastic isn't evil

Six pack rings

Every morning I walk up the hill to the newsagent for the morning papers and milk for breakfast. I try to pick up at least one piece of litter en route, just a tiny token effort towards keeping the neighbourhood and the environment clean. As I'm using my bare hands, I am rather selective about what I choose to pick, but I always go for six pack rings (usually four pack, but, hey...) as they are most likely to end up in our local river or green areas and strangle wildlife.

I've seen quite a few groups urging people to go 'plastic free' and individuals pledge to try to go 'plastic free' for a set period of time – by buying loose veg and drinks in glass bottles etc. We see beaches covered in litter and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a stain on the history of humanity. The message is clear – plastic is evil and we should get rid of it.

But, hold on just one darn minute.

OK, think about this. Glass bottles mean greater weight, means more carbon emissions in the supply chain. Loose veg means shorter shelf life, means more food waste, leading to more carbon and more land use to support the same population. If we went further in phasing out plastics, cars and aeroplanes would be heavier, less fuel efficient, and have shorter life spans. The very characteristics that make plastics an environmental problem – low density and durability – are those which make them part of the solution.

I think of plastic waste like the old gardeners' definition of a weed – a plant in the wrong place. As we shift to a circular economy, collection and recycling of plastics will be incentivised, meaning that litter will fall. That's not just wishful thinking – the UK's plastic bag tax incentivised the reuse of plastic bags, including heavier 'bags for life', and beach litter quickly halved. In other words, it's not plastic that's the problem, it's how we use it.

 

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23 November 2007

Brown admits 60% carbon cut may be inadequate

With all the furore over Northern Rock and the loss of 25m people's personal data, you may have missed a significant speech on climate change by the Prime Minister this week.

Like Tony Blair before him, Gordon Brown has never been accused of being particularly green. But, for the first time, he acknowledges that current targets may not be enough and says he will take soundings on a 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050. He also affirmed a commitment to Europe's target for 20% of energy to come from renewables - a pledge the Government had been trying to wriggle out of just a few months ago.

Apart from this, there was little to chew on - more carbon trading, more offshore wind, a home information service and various vague references to technology. In other words, plenty of commitment to action, without really saying what that action will be.

Oh, yes, for the headlines, he pledged to phase out single use plastic bags - well that will deliver 0.1% cut all on its own...

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