Video of plastic floating in water: Getty Images, Placebo365

Video of plastic floating in water: Getty Images, Creatas Video

The chaos caused by the coronavirus outbreak forced the hand of Australian businesses and organisations to create and action rigorous COVID Safe plans, allowing them to continue operating while mitigating risk to the community. Now, a researcher from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School warns that without a similar coordinated approach to the global plastic waste issue, this crisis will continue to escalate.

As the first wave of COVID-19 breached the shores of Australia, governments went into overdrive trying to balance the health and safety needs of the community, while also unrolling initiatives to keep businesses afloat.

The situation gave birth to COVID Safe plans – ensuring companies had thoroughly considered all touch points for customers and employees, and implemented strategies to the best interest of the community and their own economic survival.

The global response to the coronavirus pandemic raises a key point – business strategies play an important role in avoiding serious global issues that are dangerously escalating.

According to UQ Business School sustainability researcher, Dr Anna Phelan, who recently completed an ocean plastic study in Indonesia, a coordinated effort towards a circular economy is urgently needed to ensure that Australia’s closest neighbours do not drown in a sea of plastic.

“A Plastic Stewardship Plan, if structured into a business like a Covid Safe plan, could help businesses improve resource efficiency, cut costs, support sustainable waste management and improve the resilience of local supply chains,” says Anna.

Dr Anna Phelan - A circular solution to the plastic problem.

Seeded by the UQ Global Change Institute, and in collaboration with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Anna’s most recent research confirms the urgency of reducing single-use plastic in global supply chains and examines plastic pollution through the eyes of the local people.

The study examined the use, disposal and local consequences of single-use plastics in remote island communities in two archipelagos of South Sulawesi, Eastern Indonesia.

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Beach Litter
Beach litter, plastics
Maps, Indonesian Islands

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Indonesian Islands map

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Indonesian Islands map

“The crisis facing the world’s oceans from plastics is well documented, yet there is little knowledge of the perspectives and experiences of coastal and remote communities shouldering the impacts of ocean plastic,” Anna explains.

The research identified a complex set of factors contributing to extensive plastic leakage into the marine environment and demonstrated that plastic waste was outpacing mitigation efforts.

“The findings highlight the integrated role producers and manufacturers can play, and the downside of attributing the blame on communities in emerging economies,” says Anna.

“Remote communities simply cannot recycle their way out of this complex global environmental problem. Regions with minimal waste infrastructure require circular systems and responsible supply chains with non-plastic alternatives.”

More than just a recycling problem

Previous research identified that millions of tonnes of plastic waste leaks out of the worldwide consumer market and into the ocean each year, and that ineffectively managed plastic waste generated in coastal regions is most at risk of entering the marine environment.

This is because the rising standard of living in emerging economies is expanding the fast-moving consumer goods sector, and waste management infrastructure cannot keep up.

“At the household level, a typical Indonesian village generates about 4000 kilograms of rubbish per week, with plastic waste increasingly growing in proportion,” says Anna.

“Our study discovered that on average, 2000 kilograms of rubbish per week may leak into the ocean just from one village.”

“In Indonesia alone, there are thousands of similar coastal communities struggling to manage their own household waste, as well as vast quantities of plastic waste brought in on ocean currents.”

Globally, recycling rates for plastic are low, with only an estimated 14 per cent of plastic packaging collected for recycling. Furthermore, exports of recyclable materials from developed countries results in a significant transfer of waste pollution.

A plastic literacy survey conducted as part of the study showed that 48 per cent of respondents said they frequently burned their waste, exposing themselves to dangerous fumes.

“There is little the coastal communities can do to manage plastic waste effectively unless they’re presented with better choice architecture, both on the supply side and in disposal options,” Anna cautions.

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Island House
Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, woman rowing in paddle boat
plastics, beach, litter, micro plastics

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Beach litter

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Beach litter

Responsibility on manufacturers and business to lead a change

“Producers and manufacturers can no longer focus only on low-cost packaged products without taking responsibility for the outcomes.”

In New Zealand recently, a new government policy announced the burden of waste management would be shifted from communities and councils back onto those who manufacture the products. It targeted businesses producing harmful products such as tyres, plastic packaging and electronics.

Those businesses will work with the New Zealand government to create ways to recycle, dispose of or repurpose their own products. For example, there may be a levy applied to the product, waste pick-ups arranged, or customers could drop products back to the store.

A coordinated policy between government and businesses, striving for innovative solutions grounded in systems thinking could be a viable answer, Anna believes.

 “Like our research, this takes a systems-based approach, encouraging businesses to think about the design of their operation and business strategies, which government could help support.”

beach litter, local store, plastics, micro plastics, litter collecting

Images: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, beach litter and local store

Images: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, beach litter and local store

Transitioning to a circular economy

A Plastic Stewardship Plan can help businesses reduce single-use plastic and incorporate circular economy principals.

The circular economy model moves away from the linear take-make-waste approach to one that designs out waste and pollution, keeps products and materials in use, and regenerates natural systems.

This economic model helps improve resource efficiency, cut costs, support sustainable waste management and improve the resilience of local supply chains.

According to the World Economic Forum, New Plastics Economy, 95 per cent of the material value from plastic packaging – equating to US$80-120 billion annually – is lost to the economy after a short first use.

One example of a circular economy business in play is a partnership between Timberland and Omni United, a tyre manufacturer and distributor, to produce footwear using recycled tires. Once the OImni tyres have reached the end of their product life, they are shipped to a recycling facility and turned into crumb rubber. This crumb rubber is processed into sheet rubber for the outsoles of Timberland shoes.

"Building a circular economy approach into a Plastic Stewardship Plan for businesses is a game-changer, as it doesn’t just increase environmental sustainability, it takes a future-focused approach to ensure economic sustainability too,” says Anna.

Litter, beach, plastics, rubbish, micro plastics

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Anna standing on litter filled beach

Image: supplied by Dr Anna Phelan, Anna standing on litter filled beach

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