That image of the dead whale calf, possibly poisoned after digesting plastic waste, is now etched in our memories forever.
Aired in November, the BBC documentary Blue Planet has opened people’s minds to the consequences of consumerism – the throw-away culture which is destroying the world as we know it.
“The message is a tragic one,” says Bruce Bratley, founder of recycling company First Mile. But he also points to the tiny fleck of positive – because it’s brought the bleak message home to every household, making many of us think twice about the way we use and abuse plastics.
Though we are still in the early stages of a reaction to that series, environmental issues have catapulted to the top of the agenda for governments around the world. But while upping the discussion about this pertinent issue is all good and well, making sure it turns into action is another thing entirely.
The problem is that environmental issues never seem to stay in the public consciousness long enough to make any lasting impact, and time and time again, we have seen promising schemes go to waste
That’s where businesses like First Mile come in, making it easier for companies to recycle their waste. Businesses that are looking to dispose of waste buy the refuse sacks online, which are made of 100 per cent recyclable plastic, and each sack (starting at 68p) covers the cost of delivery, the collection of the waste, and the compliance. The flexibility of the service means that companies only pay for what they throw away.
City A.M. first met Bratley more than a year ago, but a lot has changed in that short time – not just in terms of the public discourse.
After completing a round of fundraising in May last year, the company has been expanding rapidly, and now serves 21,000 businesses (including companies like Caffe Nero, Reiss, Jack Wills, and Union Roasted) – a marked jump from the 16,000 last year. The company has also been busy building another site in north west London (having reused the existing building materials on the site, of course), which is where I meet Bratley.
He tells me they are now collecting 50,000 tonnes of material per year, and recycling 65 per cent of that.
By comparison, Westminster council – where most businesses are based in London – recycles just 18 per cent of its waste. London as a whole is only recycling 32 per cent, although Sadiq Khan is pushing for this to more than double by 2030.
While Bratley reckons this target is realistic, he also urges the government to stop talking and start doing. “There is a lot of good talk at the moment, but we need to see some rapid action.”
He says the launch of state-backed initiatives like the bottle deposit scheme are a step in the right direction, but it’s only really a speck on the horizon amid the sea of plastic waste.
The First Mile founder says there are other, arguably more effective, ways of tackling the plastic problem. For example, he thinks just two or three polymers should be used in the UK, and argues that there should be more information on exactly what products are made of, to make it easier to separate them and recycle.
While an optical sorter can detect types of plastics, these machines are limited when plastics are opaque.
Bratley is particularly scathing of the black trays used in ready meals. “To the optical sorter, these trays are a black hole – it can’t see them because there is no light refraction.”
Even plastic bottles are often made of different polymers. This could be improved by only using polyethylene terephthalate (PET), so that – when a bottle enters the waste stream – companies like First Mile know what material it is, and can easily recycle it.
Artificial intelligence might go some way to solving this problem – but Bratley points out that clever robots are currently too expensive for many businesses to install. Watch this space though, because the new factory was set up to have space for robots, once it makes economic sense to do so.
To date, the government has been pretty sporadic in its dealing with plastic waste – launching various schemes here and there, without really investing in its own recycling infrastructure. Admittedly, though, this could improve, as environment secretary Michael Gove has declared war on plastic.
Bratley agrees that there needs to be more alignment. “There are lots of ideas out there, but it needs to be pulled together in terms of a strategy, and at the moment it’s all this talk about straws; it’s a very disjointed approach.” He points out that, in London alone, the 33 different councils all have their own separate strategy for waste disposal and recycling, meaning many facilities are not being used to their full potential.
The problem is that environmental issues never seem to stay in the public consciousness long enough to make any lasting impact, and time and time again, we have seen promising schemes go to waste.
In the early 90s, environmental issues were brought to the top of the agenda, but ended up buried again when the UK was bogged down by a recession.
One failed initiative launched several years ago is particularly frustrating when considering the efforts the government is making now. Back then, various large factories were built to recycle plastic bottles. But when the price of oil dropped, it became cheaper to make virgin plastic again, so the factories ended up going bust and closed down.
You could argue that – even if we all cut down our own consumption – we can’t stop supermarkets from packaging everything in plastic
Now companies, governments, and consumers all have their part to play in addressing our addiction to plastic.
“We see everything as disposable, single-use, and instant,” says Bratley. “It’s time to slow down a bit and have a mindful think about whether we really need something – that could reduce our consumption a lot.”
You could argue that – even if we all cut down our own consumption – we can’t stop supermarkets from packaging everything in plastic. But it’s a chicken and egg situation, as supermarkets will say that consumers choose to buy their plastic-coated products (although, why anyone would want to buy a peeled satsuma in a plastic case, I don’t know).
Bratley reckons we need to look higher up the supply chain, and suggests that marketing and product design departments make sure materials are used that have been recycled, or are recyclable.
If we judge the future on history, we will get nowhere fast in tackling the world’s environmental crisis. We need to make sure the positive shifts happening now don’t end up dead in the water.