How we can move away from a throwaway society

Written by: Rob Edmondson | Published:
The lasting impact of a hot and sunny bank holiday weekend

In his second blog, Rob Edmondson picks up on the theme of single use plastics and what it will take to move away from the throwaway society.

I wrote last time about how there’s never been a better time to be involved in the environmental services sector, and every morning I wake up and remind myself how lucky I am to be doing a job I love.

Amey responded to the Treasury’s call for evidence on single use plastics, and I am sure along with many other organisations, we have called for the use of levies, taxes and charges to change the way in which plastics and single use items are used by manufacturers, brands, retailers and consumers.

This is not a statement that will shock many. And I really feel we are reaching - indeed, may have reached - a turning point. There is a definite groundswell of support amongst regular punters on the high street for action. This emboldens politicians, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently spoke of his belief that taxing plastics was the right thing to do in order to ensure there was a value in the material, a visible cost.

Levies, taxes and charges have been shown to work. At one end of the scale, the landfill tax has shifted an entire industry over a relatively modest period of time. It was supported by a strategy and targets, and as a country we’re there or thereabouts on most fronts as we approach 2020.

At the other end of the scale, the carrier bag levy has been a huge success, creating awareness of an issue, driving a major (and overnight) step in behavioural change and leading to a culture that enables us to have a wider conversation about plastics and other single use items.

However, there is clearly a wider role for brands, retailers and manufacturers, and they can take action in advance of any levies. They clearly have a role and responsibility when it comes to educating and informing customers.

Attitudes to consumerism

A picture sent to me by a colleague recently illustrates how the single use, disposable, uber-convenient but without a conscience approach to hot, sunny bank holiday Mondays is having such a dramatic impact not only on our natural environment but also on the cost of running services. The real impact on the economy is huge in terms of litter and street cleansing.

We maintain 127 million square metres of public space and this disposable, throwaway culture has a huge impact on the time required and the cost to keep it all clean.

There’s clearly been an impact from Blue Planet II and the Surfers Against Sewage campaigns on a very large number of people - normal, everyday punters, not just the environmentally aware or more active citizens.

However, there also remains a significant minority who are unaffected or unaware of what’s been happening in the policy arena, and I guess if you don’t care then you probably don’t watch Blue Planet II.

Short term, brands and retailers could help through choice editing - by promoting reusable, refillable or durable items rather than single use, disposable ones. It is essential that retailers fulfil this role as we all strive to move away from being a throwaway society.

In the medium term, in preparation for what I hope will be a series of clear signals from government through levies, taxes and charges (with a portion of the proceeds earmarked for education, investment in R&D and support for infrastructure and market development), brands, retailers and manufacturers need to engage fully and enthusiastically in the review of producer responsibility rules. They also need to test out some options on what we see is a willing public, ready in the main for changes towards a low waste economy and society.

We can still have uber-convenience, but with a conscience.

Amey will soon be launching its own plastics manifesto and top of our list is recognising and acting on the unique position we hold as a business. Our engineering, utilities, rail and transport businesses use vast amounts of material, from aggregates to street furniture to cables and conduits.

There’s a huge market for using recycled materials within our own wider business - in utilities alone, at least 90% of materials used for reinstatement are recycled. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of opportunity.

Our environmental services and facilities management businesses collect vast quantities of materials that are crying out for markets and demand to pull through supply. We have the ability through our consulting business and centres of excellence to research and design cutting edge solutions and to invest in the things that work.

We are interested in partnering with organisations and individuals who have ideas, who have solutions. We thrive on partnerships and joint ventures to solve problems and deliver better places to live, work and travel.

So let’s grab hold of the initiative and match the public willingness, demonstrate our commitment to government’s overtures and ensure as an industry that our actions speak louder than our words.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Rob Edmondson is MD of Amey’s Environmental Services business.

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