Innovate Blog
Overcoming the Single-use Mindset

Wednesday February 21, 2018

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

We asked our Sustainability expert ‘What is a single-use mindset and why is it important that operators in the catering and hospitality industry overcome it?’

Sustainability Expert – Jo Gilroy Twitter – @JoannaGilroy

And here’s what she told us…

Since the airing of the British nature documentary series on marine life, Blue Planet II, the unintended consequences of single-use plastic packaging have come to weigh heavily on the mind of the British public. For too long, we have not thought about the consequences that result from throwing things away. Our waste has simply been out of sight and therefore out of mind. Then suddenly, 10.3 million people were confronted with the image of albatross chicks regurgitating plastic bags, and clown fish using plastic bottles as a potential harbour for their eggs. Millions more watched Sky’s Plastic Whale documentary, which detailed the plastic, and other waste products, found within the stomach and intestines of a dying whale.

The result has been a public reappraisal on how we use and dispose of plastic products, and a recognition that plastic has become ingrained in our everyday lifestyle. In the catering and hospitality industry, where products like paper cups and plastic straws have been under scrutiny, we’ve seen the demand for biodegradable alternatives rise, notably PLA and paper straws.

But is simply switching to biodegradable products the answer? Ross Clark highlights in her ‘The Truth about Plastic’ article for the Spectator, “it’s exactly when everyone agrees about an issue that bad decisions are made, some with awful and far reaching unintended consequences”.

Switching from single-use plastics to biodegradable materials will not solve the issue of pollution. Biodegradable materials make us complacent and mislead the public into thinking the resulting waste simply and harmlessly dissolves back into the environment. Another out of sight and out of mind scenario. The reality is, is that it takes decades to hundreds of years for materials to biodegrade, many of which release methane, a greenhouse gas 24 times more potent than CO2, as they decompose. And there is nothing circular about biodegradables. They are still part of the take-make-waste system sitting at the heart of our pollution problem.

In my professional opinion, we need to recognise that the issue is not single-use products, but rather our single use mindset. No material, if treated correctly after its first life, is single-use. We need to give up the single use mindset and abandon ‘end of life’ language. The right incentives need to be created so that today’s single use products are firstly designed with the second, third, fourth, and fifth life stage in mind. No resource should be fully exhausted upon its first use. Consumers must also play their part and take responsibility for ensuring used materials are directed towards the right ‘life stage’ process. Despite David Attenborough’s emotive plea, 61 per cent or Brits still litter.

Most importantly of all, we need to invest in the right infrastructure for circularity. Currently, our recycling infrastructure is largely inconsistent, inefficient and too exposed to international markets. We need to fully explore and embrace innovation on recycling. For example, in the USA they are looking at how plastics can be broken down into their original components, hydrogen and carbon. Once achieved, these molecules can then be rearranged back into a usable form. No plastic need ever pollute our environment if treated in such a circular way.

Though innovations such as these may seem a long way off, Blue Planet II has brought about a seismic shift in attitudes to plastic and the pace of change has been staggering. Let this not become a repeat of the carbon emission battle, where solutions became so focussed on eliminating carbon that we saw a surge in diesel vehicles and turned a blind eye to nitrogen oxide emissions. Instead, let us pledge to ditch the single-use mindset and invest in the life stages for all our materials.

For more information about the issues in this blog or our Sustainable Future framework, please contact Bunzl Catering Supplies.

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