The purpose of this briefing note is to provide an insight into the reasons for, and the benefits of considering the plastic pollution issues as part of an ISO 14001:2015 management system and in the context of waste minimisation.
Do you remember when diesel was a good thing? Following the Kyoto protocol diesel cars were favoured due to their superior fuel economy, associated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (CO2) and thus they attracted lower tax. However, all that has changed as concern about other air quality issues emerged, and now national timetables have been applied for the banning of such vehicles. This diesel saga highlights the complexity of environmental decision making and the problem of making any knee jerk responses to environmental trends.
There is no doubt that 2018 is the year of plastic pollution awareness, and this is certainly justified if we consider that it is estimated that 12.7 million tonnes of plastic is entering the oceans each year, and that this waste is having significant negative impacts on wildlife and ecosystems.
The 2018 Earth Day message was End Plastic Pollution and the UN World Environment Day message was Reject Single Use plastic. Refuse what you can’t re-use. This message is clear that consumers are being encouraged to reject single use plastic and this is likely to have a huge effect on industry. Already 40 companies in the UK including the biggest supermarkets have signed up to reduce plastic packaging over the next seven years.
Organisations that are certified to ISO 14001:2015 should consider how this issue may impact on their own management system. This “plastic pushback” could be included in the consideration of the context of the organisation (clause 4.1) and could even be considered as an issue of compliance and reviewed as part of the aspect evaluation (clause 6.1).
Organisations should be mindful of the important role plastic may have in the supply, manufacturing, transportation and retail activities and should apply a robust assessment to determine if it is viable or desirable to remove plastic from their supply chain. There are some studies that indicate that substituting single use plastic packaging with other materials may even increase the overall environmental impact.
If an organisation does not have the resources to conduct a life cycle impact assessment, it should still try to apply a life cycle perspective (clause 6.1.2) when identifying options to modify its use of plastic. The plastic eu eco-profiles may provide a useful source of information and the WRAP UK Plastics Pact collaborative initiative for a circular economy for plastics may also be a useful resource.
An appropriate response for organisations would be to consider a “Single Use Plastic Review” within their business and this could follow the tried and tested Waste Minimisation Methodology.
Waste Minimisation Activities as applied to plastic waste
Waste mapping should involve surveying all inputs and outputs as sources of waste and could even include the dreaded bin audit.
Having mapped the wastes, the organisation can decide whether this should be a single-issue plastics waste review or a holistic all waste programme.
WRAP suggests that to reduce waste in any organisation, it is necessary to understand where and how it occurs, and how much it is really costing. The complication in applying this cost thinking to the plastics in oceans issue is that the internalised costs can be quantified but the externality costs (costs not borne by the polluter) including health costs associated with infections from contaminated litter, accidents caused by plastic litter, environmental damage, negative impact on tourism and impact on wildlife/contamination of seas are difficult to assess. In 2017 the UN estimated that the cost would be $8 Billion when considering marine litter, costs to fishing, aquaculture, marine tourism and clean-ups.
This plastic pollution issue could therefore be effectively addressed by adapting the existing principles of waste minimisation with the addition of a life cycle perspective and consideration of the externality costs when determining the true cost of the waste stream.
The views presented here are purely that of the author (Dr Dawn Pope) and this briefing note can be no substitution for reading the full text on this debate. Sources from the UN, Wrap and DEFRA should be consulted for further information.