Solving the UK supply chain’s plastic conundrum – Rethinking the 3Rs

It’s estimated that the UK plastics industry has an annual turnover of £23.5 billion, processing around 3.3 billion tonnes of plastic materials every year and employing more than 180,000 workers. From the machinery used to manufacture goods to plastic packaging used to protect products – it’s hard to imagine a life without it. However, with single-use plastics taking up to 1000 years to decompose, what methods should businesses employ to help reduce their plastic footprint within their supply chains?

The plastic waste crisis – what you need to know

The UK government claims that five million tonnes of plastic is used every year, and almost half is used to wrap products – from children’s toys and food items to online deliveries. Yet just nine percent of the world’s plastic is recycled, with the rest ending up in landfill or as litter. Here are some plastic facts that may surprise you:

  • The Ocean Conservancy found that after a one-day clean-up of beaches and waterways the top ten items were all made from plastics e.g. cigarette butts, drink bottles, grocery bags etc

  • Plastic Waste is expected to increase by nearly 30% by the end of 2020

  • Two thirds of UK waste is exported overseas for recycling and processing to countries such as Malaysia, Turkey and Poland

  • In 2018, China halted the majority of its plastic waste imports as part of an anti-pollution campaign. This has resulted in countries, including the UK, to look for alternative – and more costly – destinations for their waste

 

The government’s stance on plastic waste

With plastic causing so many problems, the UK government is working towards reducing the amount of plastic currently being used. This includes making all plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025; and eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. Steps to meet these objectives have already begun and include:

  • A world leading ban on microbeads to prevent damage to marine life

  • Consultation on introducing a deposit return scheme to drive recycling

  • Over £80 million of funding given to researchers to develop new initiatives, and to prevent plastic waste entering our oceans

  • Plans to launch a tax on plastic packaging that does not contain a minimum of 30% recycled material from April 2022

With the government taking steps to reduce plastic waste, and with more emphasis on climate change, businesses need to urgently examine their supply chain and focus on how plastic can be reduced or even eliminated.

 

Business currently ‘rethinking’ the plastic problem

Some organisations that have already started their journey on reducing plastic. Brands, such as McDonalds are phasing out plastic packaging for its meals, ice creams and drinks and instead replacing the material with cardboard or paper – an initiative that is expected to save nearly 500,000 tonnes of plastic annually.

Supermarkets have also recognised the importance of reducing plastics and are gradually decreasing the amount of single-use plastics they use. Aside, from selling ‘bags for life’ to encourage reuse and cutting down ‘own brand’ plastics, most supermarkets are taking action across the whole supply chain. Tesco, for example, have given an ultimatum to brand suppliers to act on plastics or face being delisted.

 

How can your business take action?

While it may seem that large organisations have the biggest job to do when it comes to reducing plastic, smaller businesses also have a responsibility too. According to Environmental Journal, a good place to start is by using supply chain design software to gain full visibility of what’s being used and where. This will not only help visualise the problem and uncover what action needs to be taken, but it will also make it easier to find alternatives and prioritise sustainable suppliers. This assessment can help companies make strategic decisions set against long term goals.

 

A plastic strategy should be driven by the three ‘Rs’: reduce, re-use, re-cycle:

Reduce: There are many eco-friendly materials that can be used as an alternative for plastic. These include glass, liquid wood, bio-degradable plastics, and fabrics. However, not all alternatives are good for the environment, so it’s essential to research the manufacturing processes of any replacements that are under consideration.

Reusing and recycling: Businesses need to find ways to reuse products they already have or recycle products that are no longer fit for purpose to help create a ‘circular economy’ – designing out waste and pollution while keeping products and materials in use. There are some interesting examples of how companies are already doing this. Footwear firm Hugs & Co are designing shoe soles from upcycled tyre treads, whereas Deaken and Blue are transforming fishing nets into swimwear.

With plastics causing so much damage to the world we live in and with the government ramping up action to fight this problem, it’s imperative that businesses are leading the way to reduce plastic waste in all areas of their supply chain. Not only will this send a positive message to potential customers, but it is also a step in the right direction to help rethink the ‘throwaway’ culture.

 

 

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