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Plastics | How should tech respond? 10 July 2019 | Write up and summary

1. Introduction

In the latest event looking at how tech firms are integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into their business operations, techUK convened a conference exploring how the tech sector is approaching plastic consumption. There were 20 speakers from across industry, Government and the third sector sharing learnings on material substitution, how to go plastic free and legal requirements. Key insights from the sessions are detailed below.

2. Key themes and insights

  • Businesses need to: take heed of the need to change; make efforts to remove the most obvious single use plastics; look at more sustainable product design, and; measure and communicate progress against targets.
  • The ‘Blue Planet effect’ has resulted in increased customer, stakeholder and investor awareness and concern on plastic consumption. It makes business sense to act now.
  • Plastics themselves are not inherently bad. The fact they are overused, poorly collected and recycled are why plastics have emerged as a problematic material.
  • The rules and regulations from the UK and Europe on plastics have increased significantly in recently years and are very likely to get more stringent and wide-ranging. Initially the focus has been on single use plastics, but other plastics are likely to come under the spotlight in future. E-waste and concern over the material use in electronics is going to be a big trend firms need to be aware of in the coming years.
  • Presenters and speakers said ‘system’ and ‘ecosystem level’ changes are needed to completely overhaul how we approach plastics. From the way products are made, used and disposed of to getting the most value back.
  • For businesses innovating in new materials or ways to go plastic free, seeking finance, regulations, and overcoming protectionism from incumbents are significant barriers.
  • Gamification and rewards help to reach customers, employees and partners in ways they are used to now and help to clarify the ‘why’ in changing their use of and attitudes to plastic consumption.

3. Summary of the opening presentations

The scale of plastic waste | Mike Webster, CEO, Wasteaid

  • Three billion people do not have access to waste services, mostly in low-income countries in the developing world. Ocean plastics have captured the public imagination, but the solution is to make sure it is collected in the first place.
  • Uncollected waste causes infectious diseases, air pollution and blocks watercourses. It is estimated poor waste management contributes to someone dying every 30 seconds. It is a global public health and international development crisis.
  • Innovation, waste treatment and capacity building are helping communities extract value from waste to make items such as paving slabs and building materials.

Rightweighting: choosing the best materials for the job | Owain Griffiths, Oakdene Hollins

  • When considering the right materials for the job, companies need to consider the entire product lifecycle, physical location (for production, collection, recycling) and assess the source of plastic substitutions and consider which chemicals may be used in its production. Are the new materials sourced in the most sustainable way?
  • Be aware of where material choices may have contradictory environmental outcomes. For example, gluing can make a product more durable and last longer but make it harder to recycle. Designing for reduced impacts and durability would have the biggest impacts.
  • The best form of recycling is closed loop recycling, compared to open loop or ‘decycling’ (where a material can only be used once after disposal). The best materials to use are thermoplastics- which can be regularly reheated/melted and reshaped and gives the best options for multiple uses at end-of-life.
  • A case study was shared of a large firm entering the electronics market. Comprehensive data was gathered on material use and support decision making. Overall this led to 100 per cent recyclable packaging reforming of joining methods and material substitutions to reduce toxicity and enable secondary life.

The evolving UK and EU legal landscape | Anita Lloyd, Director, Squire Patton Boggs

  • There are several new regulatory and legislative changes on the way. The plastic bag tax was the start, but the policy landscape in both the UK and EU is rapidly evolving.
  • DEFRA’s 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy has a target to remove all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The strategy was supported by numerous consultations looking at a Deposit Return System for packaging, reforms to the UK packaging producer responsibility regime, a ban of certain Single Use Plastic items and a tax for plastics containing under 30 per cent recycled material. Voluntary schemes such as the WRAP Plastics Pact have also been established to encourage voluntary initiatives.
  • At EU level the Single Use Plastics Directive was recently passed, banning 10 of the most common Single Use Plastics most likely to go in the ocean. Member States are required to reduce food container packaging and introduce product labelling so consumers can see what plastics are in the items, see disposal options and understand the environmental impact. The EU also wants EPR extended for businesses to pay for cleaning up plastic waste and for public awareness raising around recycling.
  • The Basel Convention governing waste exports is also changing following proposals from Norway for mixed plastics to becoming a notifiable waste stream, which will mean exports of these wastes will be restricted.

4. Panel discussion: How firms are removing plastics from their operations

The first session chaired by Susanne Baker from techUK heard from a range of organisations on the way they reduced and removed plastics from their operations and supply chains. Key learnings from the panel include:

  • Setting ambitious corporate targets from the top of the organisation with clear deadlines gives people the confidence to suggest ideas, drive change and get results.
  • Measuring progress against a framework of targets, actions and goals (such as tonnes of plastic not being used) is a good way to show senior leadership that projects are delivering and can retain support amongst target audiences.
  • Panellists highlighted the need to question the status quo. Do items need to be packaged in plastic and, if so, how can this be removed? Go after the easy to remove plastics first and then look deeper into the supply chains.
  • For some businesses it isn’t just about staff and supply chains. Consumer companies and those with lots of customers need to communicate what they are doing and get customers to support. Clearly explaining why something is packaged or looks different, and making it cool to make sustainable choices. There is a balance also to be struck between choice editing and empowering people to make the right choice.
  • On the easy wins and potential pitfalls, catering and food are ‘low hanging fruit’ but rushing into substitutions without thinking about the environmental impact of replacements is risky.
  • Working internationally is difficult. Not only from a cultural mindset issue, but also from understanding core definitions. What is avoidable in Western Europe may be crucial in Asia or in factories (for example for hygiene reasons). The solution is tweak strategies and internal comms to reflect local culture and be locally led will yield the best results.
  • Firms also need to map out potential bad outcomes of going plastic free, such as a worse customer experience and see how to mitigate this.
  • A ‘systems approach’ is a better way forward to look across an entire operation to reduce plastics, but sometimes isn’t possible due to regulatory barriers, local laws and costs. Companies should do what is possible regardless.

5. Presentations on innovation

Several presentations and a panel explored innovative solutions to the plastic waste issue. In this section we summarise one hardware and one software solution that was presented.

The WasteShark aquadrone | Greig Wibberley, Director, Ranmarine.io

  • The WasteShark is an aquadrone that floats in bodies of water to collect waste. It started in South Africa and has expanded into several markets. The capacity is 350 litres of waste.
  • The drone can be operated manually via a modified xBox controller or autonomously. It has reached level 2 in autonomy. Further developing the autonomy of the drone is a major focus of R&D.
  • To learn more click here.

This is Useless | Lisa Merrick-Lawless, Strategy, Nice and Serious

  • Lisa introduced ‘This is Useless’, a passion project instigated by a creative agency called Nice and Serious. It is an online directory of shops in London that offer low or zero waste products.
  • The website had 45,000 hits in under four weeks and so far, 50 shops had been registered. As a community run platform they are seeking to grow the shops listed in the directory and expand to other cities.
  • To learn more click here.

6. Panel discussion on innovation happening with plastics

This session, chaired by Daniel Quelch from Epson, looked at the innovations taking place around plastics and featured a mixture of materials experts, researchers and software innovators. Key learnings from this session were:

  • Electronics firms have devoted more R&D spend on materials innovation; however, they cannot act alone. Companies need to partner with SMEs, NGOs and social enterprises to get the best results.
  • End-of-life is an area ripe for innovation: getting plastic waste recycled to the point it can be effectively reused in a product, but again this needs partnership working and an effective regulatory regime so there is a reliable and affordable flow of reused plastics.
  • InnovateUK and UKRI have put £20m into innovation on plastics, with over thirty projects receiving funding so far. The next suite of money will go on sustainable plastic packaging. The importance of funding collaborations between industry and academia was emphasised.
  • Digital innovation will be key in getting people to act differently with plastics. Using gamification and rewards, people can be nudged to think about alternatives, and an app is a good place to do this as it is easily accessible.
  • Businesses shouldn’t stop innovating on plastics if they don’t get the results they want. As with all areas of innovation, there must be a tolerance for failure.
  • A business innovating needs to consider the whole supply chain. With materials this means thinking about the end-of-life, distribution and customers.
  • Whilst innovation is defined as doing things in a new way, firms should also look at ‘development’ which is a way to revisit and improve old ideas, or make old ideas work better.
  • The biggest barriers to innovation are financing for proven concepts to scale and reach the market and overcoming protectionist mindsets if it is disruptive and legislative or regulatory barriers that prevent a new service or product.
  • To reach the ‘system change’ for how we approach plastic consumption, which means re-evaluating product lifecycles, developing greater standardisation in industry and ensuring buy in. This also means considering other circular economy and responsible sourcing issues such as CRM recovery.

Annex 1: Links and resources

All the slides and presentations (including breakout sessions) from the event

Annex 2: List of speakers and presenters

Credits:

Created with images by Hermes Rivera - "untitled image" • meineresterampe - "plastic cups garbage disposable cups" • bilyjan - "guise plastic waste" • Prostock-studio - "Plastic waste concept" • warloka79 - "closeup escalator with a pile of plastic bottles at the factory for processing and recycling. PET recycling plant" • Satakorn - "Crushed plastic, Prepared to be re-melted to recycled plastic pellets" • Pavel - "recycled plastic bottles and waste at the plant" • Magnus - "Plastics on the surface"

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