Letter to business on plastic waste: Here’s what happens if you don’t respond

This is the third in a four-part blog series exploring not just the problem with plastic, but the huge opportunity for business to take a positive stand in the face of the biggest environmental catastrophe of our time.



In our second blog post, we explored some of the innovations currently being trialled to combat the volume of plastic we consume. Plus, we addressed the expectation that consumers should take more control of their use of plastic to actively reduce how much is used. 

But the counter argument remains strong. Shouldn’t businesses, governments and the not-for-profit sector be leading the charge?  

The damage caused by plastic stirs powerful emotions in us. And that increases consumer expectation for action. As the issue continues to take hold of our society, consumer pressure will continue to increase.

What’s fascinating is the translation of that consumer interest into a commitment to doing something positive for our planet. It has led to individuals spearheading campaigns, such as Natalie Fee who heads up Refill. The grassroots movement to install drinking fountains in cities has gained formidable traction, motivating city hall leaders across the UK, including Norwich, Brighton and London, to act.

Meanwhile, Surfers Against Sewage started as a group of individuals committed to cleaning our seas. With support from individuals in local communities up and down the UK, last year they held 680 beach cleans, with almost 35,000 volunteers clearing 100,000kg of rubbish from UK beaches. 

Then there’s the OneLess campaign which is urging people to use one less plastic bottle. It’s a campaign that demonstrates the value in working together, across sectors, to bring different and valuable skills and expertise. Fronted by Selfridges, ZSL and Thames Estuary Partnership, amongst others, OneLess is a great example of how non-profits and the private sector can come together to achieve more. 

On the flip side, other non-profits are great for turning up the heat. 

Longstanding online and off-line campaigns by Greenpeace continue to rally against Coca-Cola. The giant Plasticide statue, which took up residence outside the company’s Hammersmith offices last year, symbolised the current mood of protest against its production of single-use plastic bottles.

The campaigning has worked it seems; Coca-Cola now supports deposit return schemes (which it previously vowed not to endorse), and has recently announced a new, ambitious strategy to collect and recycle a bottle or can, for every one sold, by 2030.

As we progress through 2018, there will be hundreds of boardroom discussions trying to understand how business can take advantage of the current plastic debate.

Plastic is undeniably bad for our planet. The subject is dominating the global agenda and public consciousness. It has stirred human emotion like no other topic, and thankfully, action is already being taken.

And let’s be clear: There are huge advantages to taking positive action, not just for the environment, but for enhancing the reputation of businesses too.

But there’s also a huge risk to taking action that isn’t credible, or that is inauthentic and insincere – what you might call, classic greenwashing. We see regular examples of purpose-driven, values-led businesses appearing in the news agenda that have failed to deliver on their promises. Uber, United Airlines and PepsiCo are a few that spring to mind.

The risk is real. 

It’s easy to be opportunistic and set to work on a creative strategy to highlight the issue and the part your business is playing, such as using ocean plastic to create a one-off product line. If you can use this waste stream in your supply chain, why stop at just one product line? 

With so much energy and enthusiasm to do the right thing on plastic, it is vital that we channel that energy into action that will lay the foundations for long term, scalable solutions.

Victoria Page (Victoria Page Communications) and Tom Idle (Narrative Matters) are working with a number of organisations to help them understand the dangers and opportunities of plastics, and how to take a positive position through developing business strategy, communications and storytelling. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Oceans rejoice! These five innovations all point to a future of plastic-free packaging

This is the second in a four-part blog series exploring not just the problem with plastic, but the huge opportunity for business to take a positive stand in the face of the biggest environmental catastrophe of our time.


The first blog post in this series sparked some interesting conversations on social media.

Suggesting the war on ocean plastic waste is a battle to be fought and won solely by the actions of business (buoyed by national and regional policy development) triggered an interesting counter debate.

What if plastic is not the problem, but human behaviour is to blame? Humans litter our planet, perhaps, because of poor education around recycling, or because they simply don’t value our planet and the natural environment.

It’s a powerful and emotive argument, and undoubtedly, it’s a position that’s hard to contest; if consumers better recycled the plastics that entered homes and businesses, significantly less would end up in our oceans. “Plastic doesn’t escape from humans like a prisoner of war,” came one response. “It is dumped by a human race consumed with consumption. It is laziness…and total disrespect for the planet.”

According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, of the 78 million tonnes of plastic waste created every year, 40% ends up in a landfill and a pitiful 14% is collected for recycling. This fact is all the more shocking because almost all plastics used for packaging are mechanically recyclable with little or no quality impairment.

It is the plastics system that needs to change, argues McArthur, pointing to redesigned packaging, alternative materials and better infrastructure to cope with more efficient and complex plastics recycling.

Right now, placing the onus on consumers is a tough ask. 

You only have to look at how the war on carbon emissions has played out to realise that asking inherently lazy consumers to do the right thing – whether that’s turning down their thermostats, washing at 30 degrees or replacing lightbulbs – is not always the most reliable way to get results. Consumer behaviour change is tough, and takes years to be fully adopted. 

So what can we do to deliver more immediate impact, aside from the obvious bans on plastic? The answer, in part, comes from the world’s community of smart start-ups, who are innovating to turn the tide on plastic waste that’s destroying our marine ecosystems. 

These concepts will need continued investment, greater profile and significant corporate backing if they are to scale and succeed, and initiatives like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s $2m New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize will no doubt help. 

These five innovators are getting us excited for good reason:

1. Skipping Rock Lab

Backed by the EU’s Climate KIC start-up acceleration programme, this London-based business has a clear mission: to stop one billion plastic bottles reaching the ocean every year. And it plans to do this by replacing PET bottles commonly used to package soft drinks, with bottles made from natural materials extracted from plants and seaweed.

Its first product is called Ooho which uses material said to be cheaper than plastic to package liquids including water, soft drinks, spirits and cosmetics.

2. Aronax Technologies

This Spanish start-up makes use of a magnetic additive that can be applied to material to create better air and moisture insulation – and, crucially, makes it easier to identify and separate packaging at the recycling stage.

The additive, which can protect sensitive products such as coffee and medical products, can be used in both recyclable and compostable plastics, such as in toothpaste tubes and food and drink pouches.

3. TrioCup

In the UK, we throw away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year and less than 1% are recycled. This US-based start-up aims to stop the rot. It is currently trialling its disposable paper coffee cup in New York stores. The cup is made using an origami-like technique that entirely removes the need for a plastic lid. The material is 100% compostable too.

4. Evoware

This Indonesian start-up has come up with an innovative way to create food wrappings and sachets. Made from a seaweed-based material, they can be eaten or simply dissolved in water. It has a two-year shelf life without the need of a preservative, and the material, which is fill of vitamins and minerals, can even be customised to give a specific taste, colour or to contain a brand logo.

5. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

As one of the top research and technology organisations in Europe, it is no surprise VTT has targeted packaging as an area of focus to reduce impact. As such, its team has come up with a compostable multi-layer material using agricultural and forestry by-products. It’s early days for the technology, but it could be used for stand-up food pouches for products like muesli, nuts, dried fruit and rice.

Victoria Page (Victoria Page Communications) and Tom Idle (Narrative Matters) are working with a number of organisations to help them understand the dangers and opportunities of plastics, and how to take a positive position through developing business strategy, communications and storytelling. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Forget carbon. There’s a new war going on. Are you ready for it?

This is the first in a four-part blog series by Tom Idle and Victoria Page exploring not just the problem with plastic, but the huge opportunity for business to take a positive stand in the face of the biggest environmental catastrophe of our time.

Copyright Troy Mayne

Copyright Troy Mayne

In the past 50 years, we have become increasingly reliant on plastic. From food packaging to plastic bags, children’s toys to electronic equipment, plastic, it seems, is everywhere.  

And yet for all its convenience, the tide has finally turned as we begin to understand and appreciate the damage it’s causing to our precious ecosystems. In little over 30 years, 12 billion tonnes of plastic will have been produced and thrown away, with more plastic waste found in the ocean than fish.

The reality is: Plastic is now on a par with carbon in terms of an environmental catastrophe – and it demands urgent action. But unlike carbon, there’s no counter argument. It is visible. It is damaging. And it is highly emotive.

The prevalence of plastic in our ecosystem is causing unimaginable damage, not least to the seabirds and fish that ingest plastic particles, mistaking plastic for food.

Plastic particles are already entering our food system. In fact, by the end of the century, people that regularly eat seafood could be consuming 780,000 pieces of plastic a year

Right now, the damage that plastic might cause to our health is completely unknown. But that will soon change.

Buoyed and encouraged by the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, the consumer response to this ecological time bomb has been made very clear: We must turn the tide on plastics and protect our natural ecosystems before it is too late. 

Thankfully, action is coming, and quickly

In early January, the UK Government set out a 25-year plan for plastic, which included expanding the plastic bag charge, and exploring the introduction of a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, something that has been a huge success in Germany. Yes the plan has been welcomed, but the lengthy timescales to achieve action and lack of regulatory bite have been noted. 

At a global level, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals includes a clear commitment to protect our oceans. Last year’s UN Ocean Conference  supported the implementation of SDG14, to reverse the decline of our ocean ecosystems with businesses and governments collaborating to mobilise action. 

And most interestingly, the business community has reacted with pace and purpose. The media business Sky announced a £25m Innovation Fund to tackle single use plastic. It promises to get its own house in order too, by eliminating all single use plastic from its supply chain in the next two years.

Even individuals have started to realise their potential in doing something positive. Grassroots campaigns to clear waterways of plastic waste have sprung up across the world, spearheaded by the likes of Surfers Against Sewage.

We’ve spent decades enjoying a lifestyle surrounded by this cheap, flexible material, with little regard for the repercussions of its disposal. 

Now the world is waking up to the devastation plastic is causing, with the ‘Blue Planet effect’ taking a hold everywhere. 

With the appetite to do something about the issue now greater than ever, businesses are at the very centre of finding practical and tangible solutions.

Victoria Page (Victoria Page Communications) and Tom Idle (Narrative Matters) are working with a number of organisations to help them understand the dangers and opportunities of plastics, and how to take a positive position through developing business strategy, communications and storytelling. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Why DiCaprio's 'Before the Flood' is a must-watch (even if you won't learn anything new)

Rarely do I settle down excitedly for a TV premiere; the advent of on-demand catch-up TV options has made redundant any collective flurry of enthusiasm in the Idle house. Ignoring the release strategy for Before the Flood – for it too was available on-demand via YouTube – I put all mobile devices out of reach at 9pm on Sunday to fully immerse myself in Leonardo DiCaprio's new documentary about climate change.

Directed by Fisher Stevens, and executive produced by none other than Martin Scorsese, this National Geographic film is a thing of beauty, making the most of sweeping, drone-captured photography to bring the narrative to life.

For those of you working in sustainability communications these past five years, you will know that best practice suggests overlooking doom and the gloom illustrations and negative storytelling in favour of possibilities, solutions, innovation and technological wonder.

Well, this film goes back to basics. Following an angry-looking DiCaprio, a UN Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change, over the course of two years, the movie uses every trick in the old-school book (polar bears on melting glaciers included) to depict our planet's plight and get his message across – that climate change has already taken its toll and failure to curb its march will end in disaster.

But it does a fantastic job of simplifying a big, fat complex issue.

It doesn’t try to dumb things down; we get to hear from some of the greatest academic and scientific minds out there, as well as some top NGOs and politicians (Barack Obama and John Kerry included) – people with real knowledge and insight into their subject. And it is edited and packaged in such a way that really lays out the problem, as well as many of the solutions (Elon Musk is on hand to explain his vision in probably the most jargon-laded segment of the film).

Ultimately this is a film that will hopefully appeal to newcomers. I, like many of you, learned very little new from watching Before the Flood. But then this is not a film designed for those of us with any real knowledge of the subject.

It is for those coming to the issue of climate change fresh, or with limited awareness or interest.

Ten years ago, I bought the DVD of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. At that time, my knowledge and awareness of climate issues was minimal and that movie had such a huge impact on me; things exploded from there and my passion and interest for working in the world of sustainability was cemented. So many people I have spoken to in the past decade say they had a similar experience after watching that film. The power of storytelling is incredible.

As an artistic tool to engage people that are sat on the periphery of this era-defining issue, Before the Flood is a special film. Whatever you think of Leonardo DiCaprio – and I am not a massive fan; I find him cold, detached and hard to warm to as a personality – I heartily recommend this film.

15 of the best quotes to inspire a sustainability movement

As a writer, there are three specific books sitting on my desk within easy reach for good reason.

One is a dictionary (yes, the internet has not diminished my love of reference books). One is a thesaurus (why use ‘flexible’ when ‘pliable’ will do?).

The third is my absolute favourite. The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations is a book I return to most often in support of my work. If I’m struggling to find the right words, I seek out those of others. The pointed, pertinent, pithy and, sometimes, poisonous quotes of scholars, academics, celebrities, authors and educators can, more often than not, get a content creator like myself out of the tightest of editorial corners.

My new pop-up ethical t-shirt business – launched this week at betterbusinessshow.teemill.co.uk – had me reaching for this invaluable tome once more in search of inspirational citations from the great and good of the sustainability world.

And there have been some dynamite proclamations over the years. Here’s my 10 favourites.

And if you’d like one of these quotations emblazoned across your chest, head over to the store now.

‘Comply’ is not a vision
— Ray Anderson, founder of Interface
I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.
— Paul Newman, actor
Progress is measured by the speed at which we destroy the conditions that sustain life.
— George Monbiot, writer and activist
The best way to predict the future is to create it.
— Peter Drucker, management consultant
The future will be green, or not at all.
— Jonathan Porritt, environmentalist and author
Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.
— Naomi Klein, author
Science always uses metaphor.
— James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia theory
If you ask the wrong question, of course, you get the wrong answer. We find in design it’s much more important and difficult to ask the right question. Once you do that, the right answer becomes obvious.
— Amory Lovins, physicist, environmental scientist and writer
Being a good human being is good business.
— Paul Hawken, environmentalist, entrepreneur and writer
I’m not a pessimist, even though I do think awful things are going to happen.
— James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia theory
The earth is a museum of divine intent.
— Bill McKibben, author, environmentalist and co-founder of 350.org
When you warn people about the dangers of climate change, they call you a saint. When you explain what needs to be done to stop it, they call you a communist.
— George Monbiot, writer and activist
Give up meat to save the planet.
— Nick Stern, economist
There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.
— Marshall McLuhan, philosopher
[On climate change:] What if it’s all a hoax and we’ve created a better world for nothing?
— Naomi Klein, author

The Better Business Show Pop-up T-Shirt Store is inspired (and, quite frankly, enabled) by the amazing team at Rapanui, creators of Teemill. Co-founder Rob Drake-Knight appeared on episode 30 of the podcast. His story can be heard here.

Listen up. 52 reasons for hope in the fight to save humanity

The Better Business Show - my new weekly podcast – has well and truly been launched. The first three episodes are up now on iTunes, where you can also subscribe.

It’s certainly at a 1.0 stage, but will no doubt quickly grow into a more proficient entity. I’m truly proud and excited about it.

It’s been eleven years since I began writing about the business of sustainability. And, of course, in that time everything has changed. The world has a global deal to tackle climate change; CEO’s are thinking beyond their 5-year tenures. We have new business models that favour the leasing and sharing of goods and services. We have enlightened businesses aiming to be ‘net positive’ or ‘circular’. Some of them are even putting a cash value on natural assets.

But during this past decade, nothing has changed too. And the pace of transition to much more socially, economically and environmentally positive ways of doing business has left me largely frustrated.

An overflowing pool of evidence points to the fact that being a positive and responsible company is a good thing and will sustain economic growth and social wellbeing in the long-term. But it is not always easy, I get that. Often, company execs are being asked to take a huge leap of faith in developing scary new ways of doing things – ‘scary’ because there is often no reference points or previously trodden paths to greatness.

As Rien Otto, my guest in episode 3 of the Better Business Show declares: what the world really needs is ‘less talk, more action’.

While my new podcast is going to struggle to get over former (‘talking’ being essentially what it is), I hope the latter will be more than catered for by the examples neatly packaged up in each 25-minute show.

To make sustainable business growth – which has long term, purpose-led values at its core – seem that much less scary, the Better Business Show is here to help.

Shining a light on the very best start-ups, entrepreneurs and innovators – as well as the most progressive corporates – and exploring how and why they have found exciting new ways of doing things, the show will be stuffed full of insight, inspiration and hope for organisations that truly want to create positive change in the world.

  • INSIGHT - We’ll be scanning the planet (our first 3 episodes alone visit London, the Netherlands and Ghana) to talk to the founders and CEOs leading the charge – to find out what makes them tick and how they plan to shake-up their respective industries;
  • INSPIRATION - By learning about the challenges, considerations and successes of others, each show will leave you inspired to take new ideas back to your own organisation;
  • HOPE - Ultimately, the 52 examples we will broadcast this year will give you hope – hope that sustainable business models, products and services do work; hope that they can be applied to your own organisation; and hope that, despite how big, and fat, and scary it might seem, there is a better way.

So, what are you waiting for - dive into episode 1 right now, in which I introduce the show and, among other things, bang the drum for how great podcasts are and why you should think that too, and take it from there.

Happy listening. And if you like what you hear, share, subscribe, and share again.

Hear this: Your monthly digest to everything supply chain sustainability

We've taken over the reins of Supply Chain Risk & Innovation, the brand new subscription title launched by Innovation Forum.

So, to tell you what you can expect from each issue – and what's coming up in the next few months – Innovation Forum's Ian Welsh and I jumped in a room with a microphone and had a chat about this exciting new venture, something we'll repeat every month as a new issue becomes available.

Issue 2 lands on 1 February.