World Environment Day 2023

Today on 5 June 2023, World Environment Day, we will see lots of posts focusing on this years’ theme #BeatPlasticPollution. Increased coverage can only be a good thing, raising further awareness of the damage we are doing to our environment, however this must not be a one day wonder. Thankfully, environmental awareness and sustainable solutions are becoming everyday occurrences and that is most definitely a good thing! 

I have to be honest, personally I am an avid lover of the environment and passionately support sustainable packaging solutions but I am also a plastic supporter. However, only when designed, used and disposed of responsibly.  

We have seen so much innovation in plastics, particularly pre-pandemic, from bio-based polymers to reusable solutions. The chart below shows the scale of growth in plastic innovation particularly in plastic prevention and recycling. 

Source: Calculation based on textual analysis of data from the OECD, STI Micro-data Lab: Intellectual Property Database, June 2020.

Bio-based polymers are not always looked upon fairly. The biggest challenge we face with bio-based is responsible disposal, there simply isn’t the infrastructure in many countries to cater for bio-based and visually they look, and in most cases perform, exactly the same as petrochemical polymers. From a protection perspective this is good, but from a waste sortation angle this makes it very difficult to manage. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic plastic literally became a lifesaver, although PPE and testing kits were at times hard to source. Without plastics I dread to think how much greater the devastation would have been. We also saw a huge surge in domestic plastic waste during lockdown, with an increase in disposable takeaway packaging, and some shoppers consciously choosing plastic wrapped products bought from supermarkets so they could wipe them with disinfectants to avoid potential virus transfer. This led to increased pressure on recycling centres, which with reduced staff numbers for infection control purposes, struggled to cope. The consequence was an increase in landfill and incineration of excess waste. 

Putting this into perspective:  

  • More than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced globally every year 
  • 50% of plastic is designed for single-use purposes  
  • Around 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute 
  • Up to 5 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year 
  • 85% of single-use plastic is sent to landfills or leaked to our environment 
  • Estimated 19 – 23 million tonnes of plastic ends up in lakes, rivers and oceans annually

Source:  World Environment Day3, UN Environment Programme 4 

These numbers are simply alarming and quite frankly not good enough, we have to do more.  

The good news is we have the science and the solutions to make a meaningful difference, now we need an acceleration in adoption and financial incentives to speed up the recovery process. The consequence of doing nothing is unthinkable. 

We think of pollution as the waste we see scattered on grass verges, on our beaches and in our oceans, but pollution can be much more harmful when you can’t see it. Just like an iceberg, we only see the very tip of the problem. Microplastics are found everywhere and find their way into the food we eat, the water we drink and even the air that we breathe. I don’t want to sound over-dramatic but this could potentially pose a threat to our health, so it’s not just a pollution problem but a public health issue. 

Then we also need to think about the effect on overall climate change, which is devastating. 

The contribution of plastic pollution to climate change is alarming, yet often overlooked. For instance, plastic particles found in oceans limit the ability of marine ecosystems to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

UN experts, Geneva June 1, 2023

This all sounds very negative but sometimes the stark facts need to be laid out to drive real long-term impact. What I am really encouraged by is the number of clients and prospective clients that the team and I speak to on a daily basis that really want to make a difference. My personal sustainability mission started from a very young age, living on the remote Scottish Island of Gigha where beach cleans were a regular activity, and that was 40 years ago. The scale of the problem just keeps growing and will continue to grow unless we do something about it.  

My professional career both satisfies my passion for sustainability and also fuels it, in equal measures. At Aura we are in a unique position to help our clients drive forward towards their sustainability objectives. For some this is GHG reduction, others it’s 100% recyclability and others to remove plastic from their packaging portfolio. Our collective passion is what drives us. We educate and empower our clients to make responsible decisions, for their brand, their customers and our planet., Quite frankly, we have to! 

So, what are you going to do to #BeatPlasticPollution?  

From awareness workshops to litter picks and tree planting it’s all happening so please register your activity with World Environment Day here.

At Aura we will be holding a FREE Power Half-Hour consultancy workshop to help any stakeholder in the packaging industry with their sustainability journey. Together, we can make a meaning difference and #BeatPlasticPollution. 

Gillian Garside-Wight Consulting Director

About the Author

Gill leads our consulting offer, with over 20 years’ experience in the packaging industry, strategically developing packaging strategies, roadmaps and packaging solutions to meet the needs of clients, consumers and the planet. She has worked with many global retailers and household brands on projects spanning sustainability and innovation to supply chain optimization. With a real passion for sustainability, her quest is to educate, influence and drive a circular economy wherever possible while complementing creativity, technical functionality and commercial realities.

Gill grew up on a tiny island in Scotland and this is where her passion for sustainability started. She loves nothing more than (trying) to grow her own veg and exploring nature with her son.