By Professor Delphine Gibassier, Senior Research Fellow
Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham
it’s no surprise that companies and organisations such as Wimbledon rallied behind the cause, drifting from their plastic-dependency.
At the last tournament, Wimbledon generated roughly 400,000 plastic straws. It is therefore no wonder, amidst the ever-growing pressure for businesses to cut down on plastic usage, that the tennis championship giant has made the call for plastic straws to be out of bounds at this year’s tournament.
The plastic pollution grand challenge is overwhelming. According to the Science Magazine, roughly 12 billion tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050. Seventy-nine percent of all plastic takes this route and today, only nine percent is being recycled. An estimated 8-12 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans every year, resulting in one million birds, and over 100,000 other sea mammals and turtles, dying every year from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste. Reported by the World Economic Forum, plastics will outnumber fish in weight before 2050.
The straw as a symbol of the plastic waste problem
Straws have come to represent the plastic pollution crisis. According to the Marine Conservation Society an estimated 8.5 billion straws are used every year in the UK and can take up to 500 years to decompose.
After McDonald’s shareholders declined to report on the company’s use of plastic straws, a citizen-led movement (SumofUs) saw success when it attracted 500,000 signatures pressuring the fast food behemoth to switch to paper straws, pushing McDonald’s in the UK to action. However, this problem is much larger than the single symbolic straw.
The new plastic agenda for businesses
As plastic became the environmental hot topic in 2018, it’s no surprise that companies and organisations such as Wimbledon rallied behind the cause, drifting from their plastic-dependency.
Backing the UK’s Plastic Pact, more than 40 of the UK’s largest businesses have committed to making 100% of the plastic packaging that they use reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Other actions vary from banning certain plastics to creating entirely new recycling schemes, and reusing the ‘ocean plastic’.
However, there is also resistance, as demonstrated by the lobbying that took place around the EU plastic strategy. More than just voluntary actions, there is a need for solid enforcement from governments.
Governments have started to implement bans and devote funds to research on solutions to tackle plastic pollution. At the end of the recent G7 summit, France, Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK agreed to a plastics charter to deal with single-use plastics. The UK has pledged to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042, and Europe has also taken action to phase out single-use plastics.
Despite the actions taken after the buzz around plastic pollution, the challenges are considerable and overwhelming. First, there are still too many single-use plastics around the world, with annual consumption of plastic bottles set to top half a trillion by 2021. Second, some plastics are still very difficult to recycle (black plastic, for example). Bio-plastic research is ongoing, but not on a large enough scale, and will not solve the issue on its own. Thirdly, micro-plastics are a big part of the problem. Finally, we desperately need solutions to the issues that we are facing now rather than just focusing on preventing further pollution.
The future for plastic waste
More than ever, tackling plastic pollution requires a change of lifestyle. Single-use plastic corresponds to a world where everything is quick – fast fashion, fast food and a throwaway culture. Rethinking our lifestyles will help to inform a more intelligent way of using plastics, and avoiding the negative side of its current production and usage.
The significant movement taken by Wimbledon is more than welcome, but while onlookers sip on their paper straws at courtside, it’s important to remember that much more needs to be done, and time is running out.
At the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, we are launching a large research project on plastic pollution. Research will lead to a global and comprehensive analysis and concrete propositions for policy-making and solutions for businesses.