In the decades to come, we’ll look back on the period following Blue Planet II in wonder. Not just impressed how this one TV programme could be a catalyst for change in the UK on such a significant scale, future generations will be bewildered that the world managed to get to the point where plastic pollution had become the norm.
At the time it was aired in November 2017, the need for the circular economy was established and the desire for change amongst industry was well formed. The high street coffee chains were already incentivising the use of reusable cups, and many retailers were introducing environmentally friendly packaging. In our own business, we’d been working to achieve our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) target to halve waste and had committed to ensuring all our plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 as well as increasing recycled plastic content in our packaging to 25%.
As industry, this is the time to bring everyone together to create economically scaled solutions (from packaging suppliers to waste management companies, retailers and brand owners) via endeavours such as the UK Plastics Pact. Not only does the Plastics Pact enable industry to lead the agenda and drive action, but most importantly, it forces us to collaborate to find the right solutions to challenges that we can’t solve individually. It’s great to see the reception the Plastics Pact has received to date as we start to focus on delivering the changes needed.
It’s clear there is a big job to be done at every stage of the three-stage value chain. From the outset, brand owners need to continue to invest in new technology and new forms of packaging that are not only recyclable but are made from recycled material, thus minimising the amount of plastic generated.
We then need to consider the current patchwork of different recycling regimes up and down the country which mean that many types of plastic are not even collected from households. Research from Defra indicates that some local authorities have overall recycling rates as low as 14% which creates a weak link in the chain for the UK overall. We now need to see a more consistent approach across local authorities to materials.
Finally, consumers need to be motivated and encouraged to recycle their plastic using information that makes it easy for them to do so – which is a key piece in the jigsaw if we want to be successful. In the UK, almost 90% of packaging is recycled from kitchens, while only 52% of items are recycled from bathrooms, so we need to understand the barriers here and help householders do their bit. We can use the scale of our businesses to affect change at two of those three points in the value chain. This means we will continue to invest in creating new technologies to deliver packaging that has less impact on the environment in the first place, making reusable, recyclable and compostable plastic the new normal, coupled with better on-pack communication. Ultimately, greater manufacturer demand for post-consumer recycled materials will produce an increasingly attractive business case for reprocessing services.
So, with the first anniversary of Blue Planet II looming, let’s consider what has been achieved. There’s now a framework that galvanises a cross-industry collective into generating real change – which is no mean feat. We’ve expedited the work many of us were already doing in this space to bring them to market much quicker than anticipated, and, less tangible but no less important, we’ve changed the conversation around plastics for good. These three elements, whilst none of them perfectly formed, mean we have set in motion new ways to manage (less) plastic in the economy – and keep it out of the environment.
Sebastian Munden is executive vice president & general manager of Unilever UK & Ireland