Systemic change essential if we’re to combat problem plastics

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO WRAP

When I started out in my career as a chemical engineer, personal protective equipment, or PPE, was what we wore in the lab when conducting hazardous experiments. After joining WRAP in 2007, PPE meant the steel toe-cap boots, high-vis jackets and hard hats of waste transfer stations and anaerobic digestion plants. I never imagined that one day I’d be wearing a mask to do something as everyday as popping to the shop or catching a bus.

Early on in the pandemic media coverage was all about the scarcity of PPE. In recent weeks however the narrative’s shifted, and we’re seeing stories about masks and gloves being disposed of incorrectly and ending up polluting the environment. It barely needs saying that this is totally unacceptable. I just don’t understand the mentality of people who drop any kind of litter, but why people would throw away potentially contaminated PPE in this way is beyond me.

I’ve also read people questioning the use of plastic to produce items such as disposable gloves. I am as committed as anyone to bringing about a world where we only use single-use plastics which serve a necessary purpose. But as both a scientist and an environmentalist I’ve seen that there are circumstances in which plastic is the most appropriate material to use – and this may be one of them. It is an example of the importance of finding a solution to the plastics problem which strikes the appropriate balance between protecting people and planet.

I also feel strongly that this noise around PPE cannot be allowed to distract from the greater challenge, which is around plastic packaging. This is the focus of the world-first UK Plastics Pact, which we launched in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2018. I am determined that examples like PPE cannot be used as an argument or excuse to row back from the commitment we, and our partners have made in the Pact. We are still all committed to bringing about an end to single-use plastic packaging which is unnecessary or difficult to recycle.

I welcome last week’s report from Pew and Systemiq examining how we can eliminate plastic pollution. The scale of plastic pollution they warn about in a do-nothing scenario is staggering. I share their ambition and welcome their call for action for greater collaboration and systemic change; underpinned by innovation and investment in waste management infrastructure.

This approach chimes with the vision, ambition and direction of travel of The UK Plastics Pact, and the growing network of global plastics pacts around the world which WRAP is supporting. It’s pioneering work – we’ve built a model which is gathering pace around the world and creating a powerful global vehicle for change.

We have come a long way in a short space of time. By the end of this year, for example, we’ll have supported UK Plastics Pact members to remove one billion single use plastic items. In early next we’ll be announcing what we’ll target next.

Momentum has been growing around this issue over the past couple of years and we’re not stopping now, global pandemic or not. I’ve been encouraged by the stated commitment from our business partners here and globally to maintaining the momentum of our plastics journey. This is happening despite the very obvious challenges they face coming out of the pandemic. We are under no illusion of the complexity of the journey ahead. Reports like this are a timely reminder of that. And we will be studying the report in detail to inform our own learning.

One of the important lessons from the pandemic is that it has exposed the need for us to recalibrate the take-make-discard culture which plastic packaging has helped fuel. It has highlighted the need to create a more circular global system which both keeps materials, including plastics, in the economy and out of the natural environment. This prevents pollution, but also stops us plundering the planet’s precious resources.

Is recycling enough to bring that about? No. We have never maintained that recycling is the only solution. But it makes an important contribution. It’s fundamental in helping manage the huge amount of plastic already in circulation and absolutely should not be ignored. But it works in tandem, and not at the expense of, developing other important solutions. This includes enabling innovative design, and exploring the growing potential for refill and reuse options.

None of this is easy. If it were we’d have solved plastic pollution years ago. I am confident WRAP’s evidence-based, collaborative, whole-systems approach gives us the best possible chance of turning back the tide on plastic pollution. But I acknowledge that there’s more to do. Which is why we’re building partnerships in those countries most impacted by the problem, including in South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. And why I’m calling on more businesses and governments to join us in the fight.