By Ben Clark, Consultant, The Delphi Group
Have you noticed more garbage piling up in your home during quarantine? It’s only natural when we’re all spending more time at home, doing more online shopping, ordering more take-out, using disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), and certain businesses have pressed pause on reusable bags and coffee mugs.
Did you know that only 9% of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste we generate in Canada is recycled? Much of it ends up in our waterways and oceans, eventually making its way back into the food we eat and water we drink. While environmentally friendly alternatives, such as biodegradable and compostable materials, are available for many common products, the uptake has been slow. Even if biodegradable alternatives are available, proper compost facilities may not be.
Single-use items are products typically thrown out after only one use. These items are used for a short period of time, but their impact can last thousands of years. While there are many examples of these in our daily lives, Examples of single-use items currently being considered for regulation include:
- Takeout containers
- Straws and utensils
The good news is that governments were making progress to reduce plastic pollution and single-use items before the pandemic started. Initiatives include municipal bylaws (such as bans on plastic bags and fees for consumers), national bans, and international standards and agreements.
Leading governments have not backed away from plans to reduce single-use items, as both Germany and the Netherlands have recently announced bans will become effective in summer 2021. Earlier this year China also announced plans to restrict straws and bags by 2025.
A wide range of businesses and non-profit organizations have also started testing various initiatives to reduce plastic consumption and waste, all coalescing around the overarching theme of the circular economy. For example, a partnership was recently announced between Nova Chemicals and Merlin Plastics to build a new recycling facility in B.C., increasing the capacity to produce food-grade packaging from recycled materials.
By design, the circular economy eliminates waste and regenerates natural systems by keeping resources and manufactured materials in our economy for longer through redesign, upcycling, re-manufacturing, and re-use. By shifting away from the linear “take-make-dispose” supply chain, the circular approach presents a tremendous opportunity to rethink how we design, use, and reuse our resources (both products and services).
While the current pandemic presents a challenging context, the fact remains that the circular economy will help us reduce waste, resource use, and carbon emissions…AND it will generate additional economic output—an estimated $4.5 trillion according to Accenture research.
The Canadian Context
When it comes to waste management initiatives, local government is usually where the rubber hits the road (or where that rubber is recycled into playground surfaces in the case of used tire recycling initiatives). Single-use items like plastic bags, cups, and other packaging make up a significant proportion of municipal waste, giving cities an incentive to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills—and, even more importantly, reduce the use of these items in the first place. In Metro Vancouver, for example, over 1 billion single-use items are disposed of every year, with the most common items being utensils, plastic bags, and disposable cups.
Despite some early speedbumps related to jurisdictional authority (for example, Victoria’s plastic bag ban court challenge), more and more local governments are developing strategies and bylaws to limit the use of single-use items, including the Cities of Toronto, Vancouver, Surrey, Calgary, and others.
At a provincial level, the B.C. Government is developing a Plastics Action Plan as part of its broader CleanBC plan. A public engagement process in fall 2019 received over 35,000 responses and showed that a large majority are concerned about plastic waste and willing to purchase recycled products (even if they might cost more). The Province has also approved several local bylaws and announced its intention to give new authority to local governments to ban certain types of plastic products without requiring provincial approval.
At the federal level, Canada championed the development of the Ocean Plastics Charter under their G7 presidency in 2018. That same year, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (which includes provincial and territorial ministers) approved in principle a Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste. The first phase of the Action Plan under this strategy was approved in June 2019, and a second phase was recently announced in July 2020. In Canada’s Speech from the Throne last week, the announcement was made referencing plans to ban harmful single-use plastics starting in 2021 and to ensure that more plastics are recycled.
Short-term Challenges and Long-term Solutions
“This pandemic has highlighted the value of plastics in many uses but has not altered the systemic vulnerabilities throughout the supply chain.” – Rachel A. Meidl, LP.D, CHMM, fellow in energy and environment at Rice University’s Baker Institute
The current pandemic presents new challenges to the transition to a circular economy. Many grocery stores have banned reusable bags and cafes have banned reusable cups in an effort to protect their front- line staff. At the same time, global demand for certain plastics has increased in order to manufacture PPE, while low oil prices have also made virgin plastics cheaper than recycled alternatives, as highlighted in a recent article from Forbes.
The article describes the need for a systems-level approach to overcome the deficiencies of short-term and product-based solutions. This approach will require greater investments in advanced chemical recycling, improved waste management infrastructure, investments in transformational RD&D of higher-quality polymers that are infinitely recyclable, and collaboration between industries, technology providers, and governments at all levels.
The nature of a circular economy approach generally is that it requires systems-level approaches and cross-sector collaboration. At the recent GLOBE Advance workshop on Advancing a Circular Economy in Canada, over 100 leaders and subject matter experts gathered to explore the current state of sector-level transitions to a circular economy. Workshop participants identified the top two barriers to the plastics waste challenge as: 1) the lack of industry standards, and 2) the lack of harmonized policy. Participants also highlighted opportunities for progress in plastics production:
- Government can play a role in harmonizing standards and definitions.
- Companies can lead by positioning circularity as part of their brands.
- Researchers can continue to grow the evidence body related to the circular economy and companies and governments can use that research to drive evidence-based decisions.
- Both the public and private sector can work to influence consumer behaviour and help inform purchasing decisions.
- Stakeholders can collaborate across sectors to create a common playbook.
A recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, entitled “Breaking the Plastic Wave” outlines key pathways for eliminating the plastics challenge. Industry in Canada has also been exploring solutions, including a plastics research paper published by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Group, with support from Environment and Climate Change Canada, entitled “A Roadmap to Support the Circularity and Recycling of Plastics in Canada”.
These critical conversations will be continued in the Circular Economy Solution Series, which is presented by the Circular Economy Leadership Coalition and powered by GLOBE Series.
There is a Place for Everyone in the Transition
While many of us have noticed an increase in plastic waste in our own homes, a similar challenge has been playing out on a global scale. China has curtailed its imports of recycled plastic by 96%, alongside other countries in Asia, creating a need for domestic solutions.
Without the ability to send our waste out of sight and out of mind, there is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on alternative uses for materials, and ultimately think about how we avoid creating waste in the first place.
The good news is that researchers, businesses, and policy and industry leaders have ramped up efforts on these challenges in the last two years. This foundational work, combined with an accelerated innovation agenda due to the pandemic, is setting the stage for a broader, long-term shift to a more circular economy. As public health concerns are addressed and we transition to a post-COVID world, let’s continue to work together to act on the many opportunities in the emerging circular economy.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Circular Economy Solution Series or our Circular Economy services, please contact Ben firstname.lastname@example.org or Paul Shorthouse, Senior Director email@example.com.
GLOBE Series and The Delphi Group work together as part of a constellation of organizations with a common vision. Learn more about the services we offer together here.
By Bruce Dudley, GLOBE Series, Senior Vice President, Strategy and Innovation
The cleanest city in the world has a plastic problem.
Singapore’s streets are spotless, chewing gum is banned and the garbage cans are solar powered and smart-monitored. However, if you go for a quick dive in the nearby ocean, it becomes immediately clear that this corner of Asia is far from plastic-free.
Indeed, plastic pollution is so apparent to Singapore’s diving community that the 2019 edition of Asia Dive Expo (ADEX) adopted the phrase “Dedicated to an ocean plastic free future” as its slogan.
Asia is home to the two biggest global contributors of plastic waste (China and Indonesia). As the dive community continues to grow in China and Asia as a whole, it’s increasingly clear that people who dive become immediately concerned once they’ve descended below the water’s surface.
However, North American readers will know that ocean plastic is an issue we are grappling with on this side of the Pacific, and in our fresh waters as well.
In fact, ADEX Founder John Thet attended the G7 Oceans Partnership Summit (OPS), organized by GLOBE, in Halifax, N.S. in 2018 and was so inspired by the discussions that took place, he connected with GLOBE Series to bring these two events together.
At ADEX Singapore 2019, I had the immense pleasure of announcing that GLOBE will be working alongside Mr. Thet’s team to hold the Ocean Partnership Summit Asia (OPS Asia) in Singapore during ADEX Ocean Vision 2020 in April. In addition, ADEX 2020 will repeat the ocean plastics theme as concerned citizens the world over mobilize resources to combat this issue. Following the events in Singapore, GLOBE will then bring the OPS conversation back to North America in fall of 2020 as the global community turns towards the World Circular Economy Forum taking place in Canada.
My time at ADEX 2019 was exciting and inspiring as I marvelled at live mermaid displays, geeked out with impressive new diving gear and started conversations with Asia’s diving industry and enthusiasts around keeping this pale blue dot as blue as possible.
I was struck by the raw passion of ADEX attendees for solving the many environmental issues affecting our oceans. The diving industry in Asia is adopting the principles of eco-tourism, so they recognize that there are many threats to the pristine environment on which their livelihoods depend. The South Pacific includes some of the most beautiful diving destinations in the world, but plastic waste and climate change are changing that quickly. The dive community and ADEX are motivated to bringing attention to the problem.
The professional photography and videography Voice of the Ocean contest at ADEX brings below-the-surface stories to life with startling underwater videos like a diver descending through 30 feet of suspended plastic stratum or the moment a turtle chomps into a plastic bag confusing it for a jellyfish. The show was filled with images that force reflection and motivate behavioural change.
Both the OPS and ADEX communities are leaders of the blue economy in their own rights. I look forward to seeing what happens when these two powerful events converge in 2020.
With a focus on impact, our goals for OPS Asia 2020 are:
- To increase education and awareness by harnessing the diving community and their first-hand experience of ocean health issues.
- To create a common list of plastic waste targeting policies. Of course, effective policies in Asia and North America will need to reflect regional differences, but through collaboration, we can learn from one another and unite around a common cause.
- To engage business and industry coalitions around thoughtful solutions to the issues affecting our oceans.
- To raise the necessary funds to accomplish the above goals.
In North America, we have seen improvement on environmental issues through industry associations like BASF’s Responsible Care that rally industry together to establish appropriate standards. GLOBE will be pleased to share this experience and perspective at OPS Asia 2020 and we look forward to hearing similar success stories from our colleagues across the pacific.
In a blog with many announcements, I’m also thrilled to note that GLOBE’s engagement on oceans issues will continue throughout the year leading up to ADEX 2020 with oceans serving as a sub-theme at GLOBE 2020 (Feb 10-13, Vancouver), where we will explore the great blue seas as they relate to circularity, financing, innovation and more.
The size and potential magnitude of the problem needs action over words. It’s the single largest carbon sink on the planet and the single most important source of protein for developing countries. No one individual can solve all the issues affecting our oceans, indeed no one continent can address these problems alone. At the end of the day, water is literally what connects us from North America to Asia. Collaboration is essential.
Individuals, communities, governments, and businesses all have a role to play in protecting our most critical resource: our oceans. Dune Ives explains.
A psychologist by training, Dune Ives has spent most of her career focused on change management. As Executive Director of Lonely Whale, a non-profit incubator that drives impactful market-based changes on behalf of our ocean, Dune and her team develop campaigns to bring awareness to ocean health. In September 2017, Lonely Whale’s Strawless in Seattle campaign resulted in 2.3 million single-use plastic straws being removed from the city.
Talk us through the major issues around ocean health that we face today…
I would say at the top of the list, and it may sound odd to start here, is human complacency. As a species we’re out of touch with the oceans, when in fact they are our life support system. We stand by, either because we’re unaware, or because we don’t know how to get involved in issues that impact us every day. These include deoxygenation, which we should all be worried about since we get a lot of our oxygen from the ocean, and over-fishing – over 90 percent of our global fisheries are fully-fished or over-fished.
Another issue is the extent to which our oceans are being polluted by waste such as single-use plastics, and the impact that’s having on marine species. We’re reaching a level where pollution is starting to destroy the oceanic environment in ways that may be difficult to come back from.
What can be done to improve the health of our oceans?
At Lonely Whale, we’re firm believers that the market will lead the way. As general citizens we can rise up, make our voices heard, and make decisions every day that will have a positive impact – such as using a reusable bag at the grocery store. Policy change has an impact as well. But policy change isn’t typically accompanied with the significant resources we need to ensure policies are enacted at a local level. That’s why we believe market-based solutions are the only way forward.
There is currently a great opportunity for market innovation around single-use plastic replacement. And how about technology that enables us to better understand replenishment opportunities with fisheries? Now is the time for market leaders to step in, either with a vertically integrated solution or as a standalone innovation, and fill in the gaps. An example is an initiative called Nextwave, which Lonely Whale is convening alongside Dell to create the first cross-industry, commercial-scale global ocean bound plastics supply chain.
Do you have any advice for businesses that want to help?
There are two pieces of advice I would pass along to business leaders. The first is to become informed. There is a significant amount of data available that can help a business leader not only understand the issues, but realize where their company’s unique value proposition might fit in the ocean health conversation.
The second is simple. Just do something. Start somewhere. Why does Dell, a global tech giant with seemingly no relationship to the ocean, get involved in solving marine litter? Dell became aware of the issues and was so compelled that it couldn’t help but get involved, inspiring other corporations to also look at how ocean-bound plastics are integrated into products. Dell now spearheads a cross-industry global initiative that will solve a significant portion of the marine litter issue.
How does Lonely Whale integrate technology into its ocean health initiatives?
Let’s use the example of Nextwave. We’re processing materials collected from river and coastal areas for use in products and packaging. There are going to be many advancements in technology as we work with engineers from Nextwave companies and figure out how current practices need to be modified to better acquire, process and integrate materials into existing products.
We can also leverage existing technology and apply it in new ways that help people better understand ocean health. In our collaboration with Dell, for example, the tech giant leveraged their virtual reality (VR) expertise to create a 4D story that brought to life the issue of marine litter from the vantage point of a whale navigating the world’s oceans.
What would you like to say to GLOBE Forum delegates?
There is a place for everybody in the conversation about ocean health, and it doesn’t require a significant investment. Everyday we make decisions that make a difference. Every single step forward – either as an individual, a community, a government, or as a business – is necessary to protect the most critical resource we have on the planet: our oceans.
If they de-oxygenate, if there’s no more krill left to feed the whales, if plastic pollution continues to impact the health of coral reefs, it won’t matter how much profit we make and it won’t matter how impressive our revenues are, we will experience the effects of an unhealthy ocean in our lifetime.
This article is part of our new six-part content series, “Echoes of the Forum”, which provides exclusive videos, interviews, and key takeaways and actions from our world-leading sustainable business event – GLOBE Forum.
Our third chapter focuses on the role that materials and resources play in the transition to a circular economy.