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PHIL STORER: Re-set, re-think and re-use as well as re-cycle

10 Mar, 2021 | published at 10:05 CET

Western societies are often accused of understanding the cost of everything but the value of nothing, a sentiment underlying a brand new report, The Economics of Biodiversity by Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge, which attempts to re-set the narrative around our relationship with the natural world.

While we look at Amazon as a successful company, economically worth trillions of dollars, our attitude towards the Amazon rainforest, on which much of the natural world’s eco-systems depend, is afforded a zero value rating unless we commoditise its deforestation for farming purposes and commercial gain.

In the 600-page report, a foreword from Sir David Attenborough says: “This comprehensive and immensely important report shows us how, by bringing economics and ecology face-to-face, we can help to save the natural world and, in doing so, save ourselves.”

The report argues that losses in biodiversity are undermining the productivity, resilience and adaptability of nature and are putting economies, livelihoods and well-being at risk. However, by introducing natural capital into national accounting systems, in the same way that we view Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for example, could help us re-balance our world view by highlighting that prosperity has thus far come at a “devastating” cost to the natural world.

“Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature's goods and services with its capacity to supply them,” said Professor Dasgupta.

If we consider real world examples which touch our daily lives, packaging is a great example of how the commercial world has been seen to sleep-walk into this existential crisis. We talk today of a brave new world where the single-use plastics choking the world’s oceans, highlighted by Sir David in his documentary Blue Planet, will hopefully become history through a series of regulatory carrot and stick initiatives from bottle deposit schemes to plastic taxes on producers.

At the same time our dewy-eyed nostalgia takes us ‘back to the future’, to a bygone and environmentally more friendly 1970s where milk in re-usable bottles was delivered door-to-door on electric floats.

As the COO of one of the nine per cent of global companies involved in the circular economy, I understand all-too-well that although figures suggest 70 per cent of UK packaging waste was either recycled or recovered, it is a less sustainable solution compared to re-use.

According to a recent report from the University of Utrecht about Europe’s total waste, approximately 31 per cent – one third – was packaging material and only 10 per cent of that was recycled while, across the world, between $80 and $120 billion is lost in packaging waste that could not be re-used.

According to the report, Re-cycled versus Re-use, which uses a life cycle assessment tool, re-use costs significantly less over its lifetime because it does not rely upon the impact of virgin extraction to make the product in the first place, or the energy of attempting to bring it back to life, both of which leave a bigger CO2 footprint.

The food and beverage sector is making some great strides in designing out packaging waste, including many of our own customers. Family-run Moulton Bulb Co. has implemented a new green initiative to reduce its environmental impact by swapping the plastic twine on garlic grappes for sustainable string to save more than 100kg of plastic packaging a year.

Another customer, Radnor Hills, producers of spring and flavoured waters, worked to achieve ISO 14001, the standard for Environmental Management Systems so that 100 per cent of its plastic bottles were made of recycled material and it could promote a zero-to-landfill policy. In addition, the business recaptures 40 per cent of its waste water for re-use during the manufacturing process.

Buoyed by programmes like Blue Planet, a consumer campaign has gathered pace whereby single-use plastic packaging is being replaced by bulk-buying natural products – cereals etc - in customer-provided packaging, a home-grown revolution that has spawned a number of franchise operations locally and nationally as well as being trialled by the big four supermarkets.

In terms of business-to-business operations, the opportunity, and therefore the appetite, to look at circular economy models is greater. We work collaboratively with producers and retailers to operate one of the most extensive and longest established circular re-use models in the supply chain and in doing so we also work hard to reduce the number of empty running legs,cutting more than one million unnecessary miles from journeys.

The Re-cycled versus Re-use report bears these findings out when it looks at retrievable or transit packaging – collapsible or nestable boxes, trays and pallets that can be stacked to optimise space. These reduce any supply chain negative impacts by reducing CO2 by millions of metric tonnes. The greater number of journeys or distance travelled in the supply chain directly equates to the number of times a pallet needs to be re-used to optimise its value in the circular economy because it’s a sustainable asset that continues to deliver.

We began this article at the macro-economic level looking at the premise of monetising the value of a rainforest in economic terms so, rather like GDP, we could quantify its overall eco-system contribution to life on earth, rather than the sum of its parts – its deforested timber, grazing land and so on. At a micro-level the humble and ubiquitous pallet is a collection of timber and nails but its collective contribution to our economy has been immeasurable, until now.

Like the EU, the UK has identified a circular economy plan as one of a series of flagship priorities for a better world where we can accurately calculate the metrics of more sustainable business models. These action plans are all about changing the narrative so that we value the contribution of every moving component as a functioning cog in a machine that is greater than the sum of its parts. Supply chains, and more specifically those operating in circular economies, provide a good example of this with all of their interdependent parts delivering measurable benefits to the overall commercial eco-system.

Phil Storer, COO IPP Europe and director of IPP UK and Ireland