Karl McKeever Column - July/August 2018

Plastic fantastic

Look around any swimming pool while on holiday this summer and you’re sure to be greeted by the sight of kids splashing around on giant inflatables in the shape of animals, birds, doughnuts... you name it. Despite pressuring their parents to pack them to take home, the vast majority of these are left discarded thanks to luggage allowances and lack of storage space (and use) back home. After all, how often will a giant inflatable turtle be used in a grey UK summer? Although, if you have paid £82 for a Sunnylife Tropical Island Inflatable from John Lewis, then… just maybe.

Summer is boom time for plastic use, with cutlery and cups used for picnics and BBQs. And to me, this sums up perfectly the subject of the latest media focus – single-use plastics. Items like straws and cutlery that we use once then discard, and which are causing growing environmental problems that we are only just sitting up and noticing. It’s why it’s heartening to hear that some UK summer festivals such as Boardmasters have signed up to reduce single-use plastics via a cup deposit scheme.

This spotlight has also led to a number of high-profile organisations scrambling to announce their latest measures in order to prove their own green credentials. McDonalds is banning plastic straws in the UK and plans that, by 2025, 100 per cent of its guest packaging will come from recycled, renewable or certified sources. JD Wetherspoon pubs have replaced plastic straws with paper, with Pizza Express planning to soon follow suit.

So, where does retail fit into the great plastic debate? I find it intriguing that shoppers have a bag tax but retailers regularly use single-use plastics and discard them. If plastic use was entrenched in government policy, retailers could and would be leading the way. Not only would this save us, and them, money, it would save our poor planet from being burdened with all this useless plastic.

By now most of us have seen that rather haunting picture of the seahorse wrapped around a cotton bud. A powerful image which perhaps sums up the magnitude of work to be done. A proposed EU initiative will ban the use of cotton buds, plastic cutlery and straws... but with the ubiquitous Brexit imminent, the UK will need to start making some strong decisions of our own.

And taking steps, I’m pleased to see, we are. The UK Plastics Pact is an industry initiative designed to encourage supermarkets and food companies to reduce, recycle or compost their plastic packaging. Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, Lidl, Aldi and Sainsbury’s, among others, have already signed up. Supported by government, it is a worthy – though currently only voluntary – scheme. Interestingly, Parliament itself is joining in the attack on plastic, introducing compostable cups, replacing plastic water bottles with water dispensers and using refillable condiment containers instead of sachets. If the powers-that-be in government can take these steps then surely our more ‘user-friendly’ retailers can join in?

It’s heartening to see enlightened retailers taking their pledges above and beyond paying a little lip service to the issue. IKEA is planning to phase out all single-use plastics and reduce its overall dependence on plastics – and if you’ve ever been lost in a Market St you’ll know this will affect many many (many) products! Good work from a company best known for flat-pack solutions.

Retailers need to follow this example and reach further back than simply shuffling what’s on their shelves or upping their recycling. The most savvy will take a forensic look at their supply chain, looking at how they can switch to sustainable-use solutions instead.

For example, Waitrose is committed to making all its own-label packaging, such as food trays, widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025. Over the last nine years it has reduced its overall packaging by almost 50 per cent and became the first retailer to stop selling products containing the now-banned microbeads. Good work Waitrose. Oh and they aren’t selling plastic straws beyond September 2018. It seems the death of the plastic straw is fairly imminent.

Another retailer taking a hardline stance on the issue is Iceland. It’s become the first UK retailer to eliminate plastic in all of its own-brand products and boldly pledged to be completely plastic free by 2023. Perhaps a surprising trailblazer, but I applaud them for having the guts to rise to the Goliath-like challenge and show true commitment and integrity.

Today, growing numbers of us are invested in using brands that support causes that are close to their hearts. And it’s hard to avoid the topic of plastic. Pleading lack of awareness of the issue is not going to cut any ice.

It’s time for retailers to wise up. No more excuses, no more glossing over the issue, no more passing the onus back to their shoppers. By putting a plastic-free policy at the heart of their operations they’ll prove they’re not just playing a one-trick PR game, but are serious about going green... for good.

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