The Plastic Manifesto – Cut down waste, recycle more & improve sustainability.
Who is responsible for the UK’s plastic waste, and how can big brands make it easier for consumers to cut waste and recycle plastic packaging and improve sustainability.
You’ve seen the pictures and you’ve seen the video footage. We’ve all seen it. Turtles swimming along, slowly being strangled by plastic bags or discarded fishing nets. Grotesque floating mountains of plastic bottles in beautiful tropical seas. A dead whale with a belly full of plastic. Micro-plastics appearing in our food and drinking water.
And, of course, that shocking final episode of Blue Planet II, where David Attenborough urges us to act now to save our oceans.
That episode first aired nearly two years ago, and the series was the most watched show of 2017 – with up to 14 million people tuning in. This was a new kind of reality TV, far removed from I’m a Celebrity and Britain’s Got Talent.
For many people it triggered a sudden realisation that human behaviour is having a serious impact on our planet, our wildlife, and our own food and drink. We knew about this, but we’d buried it in the landfill of our hectic schedules and mental to do lists. Now it had popped back up to the surface, and the figures scared us
Every year about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in our oceans. It’s the equivalent of setting down five bin bags worth of rubbish onto every single foot of coastline around the world.
Seeing the reality of what that looks like, including footage of a baby albatross dying after its mother unwittingly fed it plastic, is sobering.
What, if anything, has changed since then?
In fact, consumers have woken up and smelled the single-use plastic coffee stirrers.. A survey of 2,000 Waitrose customers showed that 88% of people who watched Blue Planet II had changed their behaviour, half of them “drastically”, and half “somewhat”.
Now let’s be real here for a moment, and say that Waitrose customers aren’t representative of the country as a whole. But they’re certainly not the only ones making a difference. A 2019 study of 3,833 people by GlobalWebIndex showed that 53% of consumers in the UK have consciously cut back on the amount of single-use plastic they get through. Go us!
But despite small improvements, the prognosis for the planet is still seriously depressing. By 2025 there will be one tonne of plastic in the ocean for every three tonnes of fish. If we continue as we are, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish. Just pause and let that sink in for a second. More plastic than fish. Not. Good.
Maybe we feel somewhat responsible. I know I do. Maybe there’s some guilt as we roll our wheelie bins out onto the street for collection, unsure whether all that plastic is really going to be recycled, or perhaps sent overseas and dumped.
But is that guilt misplaced? Are we responsible for this? Or should we be looking to government and manufacturers to do more? I know there is so much I can do to improve. After all I’m at that “babies and toddlers” life stage where you watch your landfill contribution suddenly rocket.
But no-one is making it easy for us to do the right thing. If anything it seems to be getting harder to sort through our waste and figure out what can and can’t be recycled. And not just because I’m sleep-deprived!
So how can brands embrace our newfound enthusiasm for cutting plastic usage – repositioning themselves and making sure they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to packaging?
These are the questions we’re setting out to answer in this article. We carried out our own research, and what we found sheds some light on why the people of Britain are perhaps not recycling as much as they could.
One of the key players is not a person, or a company, but a symbol.
As part of our research, we reviewed 100 household products and found that the Green Dot appeared on 60% of them.
What do you think it means? Stop reading for a second and think about what you take it to mean when you see it on your ketchup bottle.
If you’re unsure, you’re not alone. We surveyed 233 people, and here’s what we discovered, shown in a simple infographic.
85% of our respondents thought the Green Dot symbol meant that the packaging it was displayed on is recyclable.
Public service announcement, via non-plastic klaxon:
THAT’S NOT WHAT IT MEANS!
Lost in translation
The official definition is as follows: “The mark ‘The Green Dot’ on packaging means that, for such packaging, a financial contribution has been paid to a national packaging recovery company that has been set up in accordance with the principles defined in European Directive No. 94/62 and the corresponding national law.”
Essentially, it shows that the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe.
The idea behind this contribution is similar to carbon off-setting. Burn 12,000 litres of jet fuel on your summer holiday to Santorini and plant 500 trees to offset it. Over time, you may(only may) pay your debt to society, so while it would be better for the planet if you didn’t fly in the first place, there is at least a logic to this remedy.
But this doesn’t work for recycling. If you make 1,000 plastic containers that can’t be recycled, but you pay for someone else to recycle their carrier bags, those 1,000 containers will still remain. They won’t disappear and you can’t “offset” them – they’ll be here forever. That’s a huge problem!
Yet as a result of the Green Dot, there will be consumers who are buying products that they think are recyclable, when the truth is they are not.
So how do we improve things, so that consumers are not being misled into thinking they’re buying a product in recyclable packaging when, in fact, it’s much more likely they’re buying something encased in a completely unbiodegradable packet made by distilling crude oil? And not being told about it.
One of the first changes I’d like to see is a ban of the Green Dot. And we need to be questioning and reviewing the principles behind it. Clearly contributing to recycling is not a bad thing, but it should be done on top of and as part of a wider recycling policy.
With many recycling sorting facilities having to discard ‘contaminated’ recycling waste, the Green Dot is likely to be to blame for this, as people add non-recyclable packaging to their recycling bins in good faith.
Our study showed that just 26% of consumers always check their packaging before recycling. But we know that 85%% of these people think that the Green Dot means that the packaging can be recycled – when that’s not what it means at all. It’s a load of rubbish – quite literally – going to the wrong place despite people’s best efforts.
The ‘mess’ of recycling symbols
We reviewed 100 standard household items and found anything from 0 recycling info, to 6 (SIX) recycling messages in various shapes and sizes.
Incredibly, in was also completely unclear as to whether 63% of these items were recyclable or not. Only 33% of the items made it 100% clear whether its packaging was recyclable.
Of the existing symbols, the easiest to understand (perhaps unsurprisingly) are the set that use words to explain their meaning.
No-one can get confused when packaging displays the words “widely recycled” or “not yet recycled” or “recycle with bags at larger stores”. Yes, there are people who can’t read or don’t have English as their first language, who may benefit from a set of symbols – but only if there is a concerted effort to educate people as to what the symbols mean. Otherwise the suite of recycling symbols is completely redundant. At the moment, they’re a box ticking exercise, giving the impression of sharing information to help make informed choices, but actually tell the average Joe (or Janet) very little.
How do we fix this mess?
If the government were determined to make changes and to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated in the UK, there are a number of things they could do. Of course we need to suspend disbelief and assume the government isn’t ploughing vast quantities of time and resources into, ahem, other matters. But if they weren’t, here’s what they could do.
Put easy to understand symbols on all packaging
Let’s retain the symbols that work because they’re easy to understand, and ditch the rest. And then let’s make the symbols we’ve kept mandatory. If packaging can’tbe recycled, people need to know. And if it canbe recycled they need to know whether to put it in their kerbside collection, take it to a recycling centre, or take it back to the store (does anyone actually do this?).
Remove the postcode lottery element to recycling
Another way to ease the confusion would be to standardise recycling practices across the UK rather than making them locally controlled. This is easier said than done, with local authorities having contracts in place that often run for several years, but it’s something to work towards. There would be much less confusion if you could categorically state on packaging whether or not something can be recycled, regardless of whether the consumer lives in Plymouth, Pontypridd or Pitlochry.
Incentivise good practice
There is nothing to stop government from making it easier for FMCG brands to adopt more planet friendly packaging. Financial incentives or tax breaks for those companies using recycled and recyclable or reusable packaging are one option that stands out. This is really important, because there will often be a significant investment involved in a brand changing their packaging. Financial incentives would encourage companies to switch voluntarily, before they are forced to by regulation or consumer demand.
Self-regulation by brands and manufacturers
Companies are already making improvements, and I expect to see this snowballing over the next 12 months as brands do what they do best and respond to what customers want.
Morrisons has been the first UK supermarket to roll out plastic free fruit and vegetable sections in many of its stores. They are phasing out unrecyclable black plastic trays by the end of 2019. And they’ve pledged to ensure that all of their own brand products’ packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Costa, Starbucks and Pret a Manger all offer discounts to customers who bring their own reusable cup. These are positive changes, but they’re a drop in the ocean (excuse the metaphor) when it comes to global plastic usage. Especially when many brands are not following the these companies’ lead.
Earlier in 2019, Coca Cola revealed it uses 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging in one year… an amount so difficult to visualise that the BBC helped by explaining that it’s the same weight as 15,000 blue whales. Incredible!
The plastic-producing giant has made pledges to recycle a used bottle or can for each one the company sells by 2030. And they’ve pledged to double the amount of recycled material in their packaging by 2020, from 25% to 50%, as well as running campaigns to encourage recycling.
You can be sure that when industry giants are putting recycling at the top of the agenda, it’s something that consumers are demanding. But many companies are still lagging behind, and there are real opportunities for brands that tap into what consumers want and embrace the current mood.
What can brands do to tap into consumer demands?
None of this is complicated, and brands who seize the moment and act now have a real opportunity to keep their current market share andgrab new customers who are looking to do their bit for the planet.
Here’s what brands could be doing:
- Make recycling information easy to understand. No fudging, no ambiguity – just tell people whether your packaging can be recycled and if so, where?
- If your packaging can’t be recycled, look into alternative packaging that isrecyclable.
- Increase the amount of recycled material in your packaging.
- Look at alternatives to plastic packaging. The human race did just fine before plastic became ubiquitous.
- Run a campaign – tell consumers what you’re doing, and why, so they know that you care about the planet and the need to cut down on plastic use.
What can we all do?
Every single one of us – whether or not we work in branding, marketing or customer experience – can make a difference and help stem the tide of plastic (another oceanic pun – sorry not sorry).
Education. Education. Education.
Blue Planet II opened a lot of eyes, but didn’t necessarily help us figure out what to do about the problem. Ideally there would be government campaigns to explain to us how to do our bit. But that’s not coming any time soon, so we need to educate ourselves.
What’s going into your kitchen bin and ultimately ending up in landfill? Check all packaging before it goes in there, and Google it if you’re not sure. Are there switches you can make to reduce the amount that goes into your main bin.
Which products do you use that can be recycled, and are you putting them into the right bin in the right condition (Yes, it’s a pain in the arse, but you need to wash the plastic trays your meat comes in before you recycle them).
Life is busy, and you won’t transform into a perfect recycling household overnight, but what baby steps can you take? Keep reading for some quick start suggestions.
Demand more from brands and politicians
If you find yourself outraged about how much packaging can’tbe recycled, can you take some time to demand more? No need to start a time-consuming letter writing campaign. Tweet your favourite brands, email your MP, sign a Friends of the Earth petition[ADD LINK:https://act.friendsoftheearth.uk/act/help-reduce-plastic-oceans].
I’ll openly admit that I was much less engaged with all this before I had children, and I’ve only just signed the above petition myself. You could say I’m behaving like that person who’s just quit smoking and is now I’m pushing everyone else to join me. But once your eyes have been opened to this stuff, it’s hard to put it back in the 100% recycled cardboard box!
Vote with your feet
If you can afford to, vote with your feet and your purse. If your current supermarket wraps every single last cucumber in unnecessary plastic wrap, switch to one that doesn’t. When you shop for gifts, choose items that aren’t packaged in ridiculous amounts of plastic. Consider switching back to a traditional milk delivery service with glass bottles. And look at what other switches you can make.
It’s clear that there’s a lot that can be done and, as well as setting out steps to help the planet, we’re keen to help brands position themselves as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
We’ve summarised all of our points into a quick read Manifesto – to make it easy to see what changes need to be made.
Manifesto Point #1: Get Rid of the Green Dot
The Green Dot is confusing – consumers think it means the packaging is recyclable, when it actually means the manufacturer has contributed to a recycling scheme.
In an ideal world we would scrap the Green Dot. However, since it’s used across Europe, and is mandatory in some countries, our chances of scrapping it right now are slim. (Maybe Brexit will mean we could get rid of this – a man can dream of finding a positive.)
Either way, we need to educate UK consumers. We need a publicity campaign, funded by the government as part of their strategy on climate change that explains to people that the Green Dot doesn’t mean what they think it does.
Manifesto Point #2: Review and standardise all recycling symbols
There are at least 27 different recycling symbols and people aren’t clear on what they mean. We need a reduced number of symbols with clear, useful meanings, and an education campaign to ensure people know what each symbol means. And actually this would probably be a welcome distraction from current political shenanigans.
Manifesto Point #3 Can I recycle this?
Make it a legal requirement for companies to display the following on their packaging:
- a) How much of the packaging is made from recycled materials
- b) The best way to dispose of the packaging. If it can’t be recycled, this should be stated clearly.
This gives consumers the opportunity to choose a more environmentally sound option, without having to do their own research into which packaging is and isn’t recyclable. Some supermarkets are doing this on their own brand products, but it needs to be on EVERYTHING.
Manifesto Point #4 Standardise a recycling policy for the country as a whole
The current system is confusing and unfair, with different councils offering different services. Here in Lichfield, and also in neighbouring Birmingham, there is no food waste collection at all, whereas friends in the South East have had a food waste collection for several years.
And while local councils have published guidance as to which plastics can and can’t be recycled, without clear labelling there is too much ambiguity and too much to remember! o I leave the milk bottle cap off and squash the bottle, or not? Can this plastic film go in with my carrier bags? And what about this plastic tray with a number 5 on the bottom? Modern life gives us enough to think about without all this confusion!
In fact, 47% of people in the UK report that they disagree over what can be recycled, with more than a quarter having a conversation about this at least once a month. If the government brought in regulations on this, so that councils had to provide specific services and explain clearly what can and can’t be recycled, this would clear up a lot of issues and make recycling much easier.
Manifesto Point #5: Self-regulation by manufacturers
Consumers want less plastic, and many brands are already cutting down on plastic packaging. But where plastic packaging is still being used, we call on companies to make it clear to consumers how they can recycle it.
If something can’t usually be recycled by local authorities, tell us in clear language. Then consumers can make informed decisions about what they buy.
Manifesto Point #6: Vote with your purse, wallet or debit card
Where possible, choose brands and products where the packaging is made from recycled materials and can also be recycled easily. Choosing to spend your hard-earned pennies on products that have a lesser impact on the planet may cost more, but it’s an investment in the future of our planet. If you can afford to switch to non-plastic alternatives, go for it! Despite my points above, I believe this is going to be the fastest way to encourage companies to make changes.
Manifesto Point #7: Do what you can
A major key to reducing plastics going into landfill and into the oceans is for the big players in the FMCG industry to change their behaviour. Whether this happens because of regulation, or voluntarily, either way it is going to take time.
In the meantime, we can all improve how we use and interact with plastic by making small changes. Some changes may be financially advantageous, such as carrying a reusable water bottle instead of buying bottled water.
And some may cost us money, such as buying meat from a local butcher who doesn’t package up our pork chops in endless plastic trays.
As well as being good for the planet, doing what you can will also encourage the big players to change their behaviour. When sales are hit, behaviour changes. Quickly.
“I want to change, but I’m busy!”
All of these ideas are great, but the reality is that modern life is busy, and we don’t always have time to read every packet. There is an appetite for change, but no-one wants to spend their precious free time standing around in the kitchen, arguing with their partner about which bin to put the spreadable butter tub in. That’s why it’s time for manufacturers to take action.
Our survey shows that 79% of people would be willing to pay more to ensure packaging is made from recycled material. And 27% would be willing to pay up to 10% extra.
So people are willing to pay more, and they’re prepared to pay quite a chunk more. Consumers notice a five pence price increase on their favourite brands, so to commit to paying up to 10% more shows this is something that matters.
But we do need to be pragmatic. Many people are juggling work and family on a tight budget, and while they’d love to buy the super eco-friendly version of every product, they also have a finite amount of disposable income.
Like me, they might choose the more expensive compostable baby wipes, but still find themselves sending all kinds of random plastic film to landfill, because that’s what the fruit they ordered in the last online shop comes packaged in.
This is yet another reason why we need the government and manufacturers to take action to cut packaging and to create pocket-friendly recyclable packaging that is clearly labelled.
I believe the brands that take action ahead of being compelled to do so will have a distinct competitive advantage and they’ll make it easy for consumers to do the right thing, without us needing to understand 27 different confusing packaging symbols.
This is a call to arms to the FMCG industry. Make a choice to reduce the amount of packaging you use, and sell your products in recycled and recyclable packaging. And make it easy for us to see that it’s recyclable.
Even looking at this issue from a purely financial standpoint, it’s what your customers want. Some consumers are prepared to pay more and some are not, but a majority of your customers want you to help them to use less plastic. This is a win-win situation for brands that take on board the current mood and run with it.
And to the government, I know you have a lot on your mind right now, but the fate of our planet is a pressing issue. It’s time to show us that you care about something other than your own in-fighting.
Plastic is in the food chain, and it’s in our water supply. We need you to step in and start phasing out non-essential single use plastics and, in the meantime, to insist on clear labelling that shows whether what we’re buying can be recycled.
As David Attenborough puts it,“Never before have we been so aware of what we are doing to our planet – and never before have we had such power to do something about it”.