Tackling the waste plastic epidemic

One cannot have missed the increasing concern surrounding waste plastic in the last few months and weeks. The good news is that the first step towards solving a problem is to recognise it as an issue in the first place, and it seems that this ongoing environmental crisis is now starting to get the publicity it needs.

The scale of the problem

The bad news is that the more articles appear on the subject, the more it becomes clear that the problem is even bigger than first realised. As recently reported by Sky News, a lot of the UK’s plastic waste is recorded as recycled when it is exported, regardless of what actually happens to it when it reaches its destination. This issue is only likely to worsen as China, previously the recipient of two thirds of the UK’s plastic waste, was due to ban imports of waste plastic as of January 2018.

With the national average recycling rate having stalled at 43% and even the fate of plastic which is exported for recycling uncertain, it is clear that we have to produce fewer single-use plastic items. According to the BBC, 480 billion plastic drinks bottles were sold globally in 2016 and given that each bottle will take around 450 years to biodegrade, production of these items is far outstripping our ability to dispose of them.

Changing behaviours

As with single-use plastic bags, changing public behaviours will be key to solving the problem. Though businesses and public buildings in the UK are already legally obliged to offer free drinking water, popping in and asking for a refill for your reusable water bottle can feel a bit cheeky if you are not buying anything else.

Fortunately, there is a growing initiative, spearheaded by a group called City to Sea in Bristol which aims to set up free refill stations nationwide. The Refill campaign already has 1,600 drinking water stations across the country which you can locate using the Refill app. Now Water UK have joined the campaign with a view to widening the network to include tens of thousands of high street shops and cafes by 2021. Crucially, the scheme will make it clear that people are welcome to refill their bottles via window stickers and a location marker on the Refill app.

The plastic bag tax demonstrated that uptake of single-use plastic items can be successfully discouraged. After a five pence tax on thin-gauge plastic shopping bags was introduced in October 2015, their use dropped by over 85% in six months. A similar tax on all single-use plastics (including packaging and take-away cartons) is being considered by the Treasury, whilst a plastic bottle deposit scheme has also been suggested. This could see around 20 pence added to the cost of drinks sold in disposable plastic bottles, which would then be refunded when the bottle was returned to the point of sale for recycling.

Germany introduced just such a scheme in 2002 and it has since helped them achieve the highest rates of polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottle returns and recycling in the world, with rates of 97-98% being reported. In addition to this, 80% of Germany’s recycling is done domestically, avoiding the kind of uncertainty which currently surrounds the fate of Britain’s exported waste plastic.

In combination with a wider, well-advertised network of refill points, a tax or deposit scheme could be the mechanism for effecting the genuine change in consumer habits necessary to stem production of single-use plastic bottles.

Smell the coffee

There are other areas, however, where eliminating single-use plastic is not proving as straight forward. A recent proposal to apply a similar levy – dubbed the latté levy – on single-use coffee cups has not been well received by the industry.

Disposable coffee cups are clearly an issue as, despite being mostly paper, they have a polyethylene lining to make them waterproof. Currently, there are just three recycling plants in the UK that can separate the paper from the plastic lining, clearly not enough when 2.5 billion disposable cups are used every year in the UK. In fact, only 1% of disposable coffee cups are ever recycled.

As with bottled water, swapping single-use containers for reusable mugs would seem to present a way forward and moves are already being made to reward customers for using them. This month, Pret A Manger announced it was doubling the discount it offers on hot drinks for customers who bring their own mug, from 25p to 50p. Even whilst levies on disposable coffee cups remain at the proposal stage, evidence suggests that consumers are already changing their habits with sales of barista-standard reusable cups reaching a quarter of a million in the UK in the last three months of 2017 alone.

It is important that all aspects of the industry are keeping up to date with the potentially rapid shift in consumer behaviour. United Baristas have identified planning law as a particular area where legislation is seemingly at odds with the move towards more environmentally friendly practices.

It turns out that a lot of coffee shops in the busiest ‘A1’ sites are subject to planning laws requiring at least 50% of their sales to be of products consumed off site. Measures to reduce the number of single-use cups, such as the 25 pence levy could impact take-out sales, and lead to a higher percentage of customers sitting in. Ultimately, this could put some coffee shops in breach of planning regulations, putting the business at risk. The irony here is that the higher the percentage of take-away coffees a shop currently sells, the less likely they are to find themselves in breach of the law – so the worst contributors to the disposable cup problem get off most lightly.

Cleaning up

Clearly, all aspects of consumer behaviour have to be examined and factored in to any changes in the law. But what can we do as individuals to speed up the rate of change and make a difference to the plastic waste epidemic?

Well, since it seems that since much of the plastic exported for recycling is not actually recycled, and the facilities do not exist on the scale required to deal with the number of disposable coffee cups we use, simply putting your waste in the right bin may not be the answer – we have to use fewer of these items. Get a reusable water bottle, get a reusable coffee cup with a lid, and buy fewer products with unnecessary packaging. We can talk all day about changing consumer behaviour but at the end of the day, those consumers are us, and our individual actions make a difference.

For the most committed amongst us, there are also ongoing initiatives that you can join to help clean up the plastic that already contaminates our beaches. The Marine Conservation Society, for example, runs regular Beachwatch beach cleaning events up and down the country, so find your nearest event, don your wellies, and get involved.

Matthew Pavli is writing for Aqua Cure. The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Three ways product design can reduce poverty overseas

One day, your smartphone will probably be recycled by a teenager on a rubbish tip; perhaps in Ghana or Nigeria. Months before that, it will likely have been repaired and sold on by an entrepreneur in the same country.  The health and livelihoods of these women and men depend on the way we design our products in the EU – the toxic chemicals we permit and the ease of repair that we require. 

Most of the electronic goods we dispose of eventually end up in developing countries (for computers, the figure is 90%). Most of this equipment is repaired and sold on; creating jobs and allowing access to cheap IT for those who would otherwise not benefit from it. In Accra, Ghana, for example, the refurb sector provides more than 30,000 jobs, and 80% of devices are either secondhand, repaired or refurbished.

However, there is also a dark side to this story. Your mobile phone contains arsenic, lead and a host of other toxic materials that pose a threat to life when it is no longer (re)useable. If the phone is sent to landfill, these chemicals can leach into soil and groundwater. Under appropriate conditions, recycling is safe. But if the recycling is conducted by a child with no safety gear on a Ghanian rubbish tip, the consequences can be brutal. Unfortunately, the latter is common. The biggest e-waste dump in the world is just outside Accra.

This newly released Tearfund paper examines how product design standards (and in particular the EU’s Ecodesign legislation) could be used to enhance the livelihoods of those engaged in repair and recycling in poor nations, rather than endangering them. This perspective is entirely absent from the debate about these standards at present.

The paper represents our first investigation of this important issue, but we can already draw three conclusions:

  1. Ambitious, open design standards could improve the livelihoods of repair and remanufacturing entrepreneurs in the Global South;
  2. Restrictive standards that allow manufacturers to exert a monopoly over repair and upgrade could damage these livelihoods;
  3. Restricting the use of hazardous chemicals (like those on the list of ‘Substances of Very High Concern’) could improve the health of huge numbers of children and adults currently involved in the informal recycling of electronics.

At present, design standards such as the EU’s Ecodesign measures are intended to improve the resource efficiency of products sold in Europe, which is a worthy aim. With a bit more thought, they could also be used to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

Richard Gower is the Senior Associate for Economics and Policy at Tearfund, an international development NGO. This blog also appeared on Tearfund’s JustPolicy platform

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue 

Why conservatives should welcome the circular economy

Not many people have heard about the ‘circular economy’, and even fewer know what it means. But, among environmentalists, it’s increasingly talked of as a major new economic trend.

It’s a term that means different things to different people. But the core of the idea is resource efficiency, the idea of reusing and recycling materials, and maximising the economic value of the things that we produce. It is a move away from the linear economic model of ‘make-use-dispose’, and a way to promote sustainable growth in a future of resource scarcity and a growing global population.

Making the circular economy a tangible concept can be hard. In the Green Alliance’s 2015 report on the circular economy, they outlined some of the different examples of circular economy activities. These include:

·      Reusing. Using the finished product for the same purpose as it was originally manufactured (e.g. using a second-hand iPhone)

·      Servitisation. Using assets more efficiently, such as through leasing or short-term service provision (e.g. renting a room via AirBnB)

·      Recycling. Using recovered materials to create new products

·      Biorefining. Extracting useful, valuable material from biowaste

Domestically, ministers at Defra are supportive of the circular economy. In December 2015, the EU Commission published a new action plan on the circular economy, which includes new common targets for EU Member States on waste and landfill use. It’s something that will increase in importance, therefore, in the coming years. This blog will look at some of the evidence around the economic and environmental impact of the circular economy.


There are significant economic benefits for businesses of cutting waste and being more efficient in their consumption of resources. A circular economy approach can help firms reduce their costs and make them more competitive globally.

Last year, the Green Alliance analysed the impact of the circular economy on employment. They studied the performance of the waste and recycling industry between 2000 and 2010, a period in which landfill declined and recycling rates rose. During that time, employment in the sector increased from 75,000 to 130,000 people, and sales turnover nearly tripled, up from £6.5 billion to £19 billion. They also examined the potential for the whole circular economy up to 2030. They found that there’s the potential for between 54,000 and 102,000 net jobs to be created in that time.

As more resources are consumed and they become scarcer, businesses that rely on natural resources will become more susceptible to price volatility. The circular economy reduces businesses’ exposure to these price risks. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organisation set up to promote the circular economy, has worked with McKinsey to quantify the benefits to businesses of being more resource efficient. They have found that, by reducing the amount of raw materials businesses need, the net material savings across the whole EU could be between $340-630 billion per year.


As well as offering economic benefits to businesses, there are advantages to the environment of a circular economy approach. The circular economy recognises that some natural resources are limited. To achieve sustainable economic growth, countries cannot rely on infinite consumption of finite resources.

Many activities associated with the circular economy reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore support efforts to mitigate climate change. For instance, recycling food waste rather than sending it to landfill reduces harmful methane emissions. Through the process of anaerobic digestion, food waste creates biogas, a low-carbon energy source that displaces fossil fuels.

Circular economy approaches can also reduce pollution that is harmful to the natural environment. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has produced a report on plastics and the circular economy. Eight million tonnes of plastic leaks into the ocean every year, adding to the total of 150 million tonnes of plastic that is in the ocean today. Plastics also represent about 6% of global oil consumption, and is thus a major driver of fossil fuels use. In a circular economy, these environmental impacts could be mitigated through greater recycling, greater use of reusable packaging, and the use of compostable packaging.  


The more the circular economy approach is adopted, the greater the scale of economic transformation is required. For instance, the Chatham House has argued that a circular economy implies the decoupling of rising prosperity with growth in resource consumption. This talk of economic revolution can make conservatives anxious.

The idea of a circular economy, however, shouldn’t be seen in such stark terms. Organisations like WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation partner with businesses to develop circular economy approaches that increase their profits. It can be a very practical way of reducing inefficient economic activity and improving the natural environment. Conservatives should ignore the hyperbole, and embrace the opportunity that it offers.