Plastic recycled in the UK could supply nearly three-quarters of domestic demand for products and packaging if the government took action to build the industry, a new report said on Thursday.
The UK consumes 3.3m tonnes of plastic annually, the report says, but exports two-thirds to be recycled. It is only able to recycle 9% domestically.
Measures including increased taxes on products made with virgin plastic, and mandatory targets for using recycled plastic in packaging, could encourage an additional 2m tonnes of plastic to be recycled in the UK, the report from Green Alliance said.
The analysis said simply collecting plastic and sending it abroad for recycling does not solve the problem of the global scourge of plastic pollution.
“The UK does not have an adequate system to capture, recycle and re-use plastic materials,” the report said.
It recommends three new measures to ensure more plastic is recovered in the UK and used as raw material in manufacturing. These are:
Mandatory recycled content requirements for all plastic products and packaging;
Short-term support to kickstart the plastic reprocessing market; and
a fund to stabilise the market for companies investing in recycling plastic domestically.
Green Alliance produced the report for a group of businesses that have formed a circular economy taskforce.
Peter Maddox, director of Wrap UK, said the UK had to take more responsibility for its own waste.
“Our mission is to create a world where resources are used sustainably. To make this happen in the UK, we need to design circular systems for plastics and other materials that are sustainable both economically and environmentally. This will require some fundamental changes from all of us.”
The report said government action is necessary to create and support a secondary plastic market in the UK. “The government is uniquely placed to address the market failures that have led to unnecessary reliance on virgin materials to the detriment of the environment, industry and the economy.”
But voluntary pacts were not enough, the report said, and government action was needed.
“A secondary plastic market … could recycle an additional 2m tonnes in the UK and fulfil 71% of UK manufacturing’s raw material demand … Voluntary initiatives like the UK plastic pact … only thrive when supported by a credible prospect of government regulation if industry does not deliver.”
Among retailers and manufacturers, they talk of “the Blue Planet effect”. The BBC series, screened late last year, was the moment that many of us realised the catastrophic impact our use of plastics was having on the world’s oceans. Scenes such as a hawksbill turtle snagged in a plastic sack, the albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic or the mother pilot whale grieving for her dead calf, which may have been poisoned by her contaminated milk, are impossible to unsee.
It’s a crisis that affects us all, and the facts make for dispiriting reading. If nothing changes, one study suggests that by 2050 our oceans will have more plastic swimming around, by weight, than fish. It’s already estimated that one third of fish caught in the Channel contain plastic; another piece of research found that “top European shellfish consumers” could potentially consume up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic a year.
Suddenly our use of plastics is firmly on the political and cultural agenda. While impassioned individuals have been pushing to reduce our use of plastics for a few years, the volume of the debate has been turned up dramatically in recent months.
There is hope, too, that the message is getting across. The 5p charge on carrier bags, introduced in 2015, has led to an 85% drop in their use across England; an astonishing 9bn bags. Here, we highlight pioneers who are tackling the issue of plastics in creative ways.
Chelsea Briganti and Leigh Ann Tucker: ‘Imagine a lemon-flavour straw and a grapefruit cup or a vanilla straw for your iced latte’
Across the US, around 500m plastic straws are used and discarded every single day. “We could fill 125 school buses,” says Leigh Ann Tucker, co-founder of Loliware. The straws are made from polypropylene, a petroleum by-product, which is technically recyclable in large formats, but this is practically impossible with something the size of a straw. “So they end up as landfill or ocean pollutants,” Chelsea Briganti, Loliware’s other half, chips in. “We’re drowning in our plastic.”
Britain sucks, too. Here, we throw away an estimated 8.5bn straws annually, easily the most in Europe. In London alone, more straws are used than the whole of Italy. Most campaigns focus on getting rid of plastic straws or using longer-lasting or biodegradable alternatives and these have had considerable traction – now the UK government has announced a consultation on banning plastic straws.
However, Briganti and Tucker have a more playful solution. This summer in the US, and next year in the UK, they are launching the Lolistraw, a straw that you can drink from and then eat – they call it “biodegr(edible)”.
The main ingredient is seaweed, which can have different flavours or nutrients added. The material can also be fashioned into cups and lids, all of which can be munched on after you’ve finished drinking.
“Imagine a lemon straw with a blood orange lid and a grapefruit cup,” says Briganti, in a call from Beacon, New York, where Loliware has its offices in an old silk factory. “Or a flavoured vanilla straw for your iced latte. There’s an inherent idea that there needs to be a trade-off, but actually we can offer something more exciting. We want to invigorate the discussion of ‘What does sustainability mean now? And how does that benefit me?’, rather than asking people to compromise as a consumer.”
The neologisms do not end there: Loliware has also created a designation called “hypercompostable”. “We wanted to distinguish ourselves from industrial compostable materials such as PLA [polylactic acid] plastic, which is often made from GM corn, because we wanted to show people what real compostability means,” explains Briganti. “If this cup or straw ends up in a waterway, it’ll simply dissolve; if it ends up in the natural environment, it will break down in 60 days.” PLA, meanwhile, though technically biodegradable, can take a long time to decompose (anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years in a landfill) and also needs to be kept separate when it’s recycled because it can contaminate the recycling stream.
Loliware launched in March 2015, but Briganti and Tucker had been working together since they’d met a few years earlier at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Their first product was an edible cup and it immediately caused a stir. In October 2015, Loliware pitched on Shark Tank – the US version of Dragons’ Den – and there was a “shark brawl” as all of the entrepreneurs tore strips off each other to invest.
The original cup proved popular – deals were sealed with the Four Seasons hotel group, 60,000 were bought by Absolut and so on – but at nearly a unit, it was too expensive for mainstream penetration.
That has changed with a new material they call Lolizero, which is “cost-competitive” with paper and PLA. Loliware is currently in discussion with global chains in the coffee and fast-food sectors, as well as more upmarket chains, about using its cups, lids and straws. “Just to give you an idea,” says Tucker. “One big account, replacing 10% of their straws, is so significant it’s in the hundreds of millions.”
Briganti and Tucker are confident their products will make a big dent in the single-use drinks market – and they’re especially proud to have made an impact as a pair of female innovators.
“Women solving the challenges for Mother Earth, if you will,” Briganti says with a laugh. “We have a direct connection with her.”
Vin and Omi: ‘People ask “Is this silk?” No, it’s 11 small Evian bottles’
The eco fashion designers Vin and Omi are tricky men to pin down. They don’t like to use their real names. They are vague about their ages and where they live, though it’s usually either London or New York. It’s not impossible to find photos of them, but they often wear masks or, as was the case at end of one catwalk show, cardboard boxes with holes hastily punched for their eyes. “The Daily Mail called us the Banksys of fashion,” says Omi with a giggle, the slighter of the pair and originally from Singapore, when we meet at the Andaz hotel in east London.
Perhaps inevitably, the pair dislike the tag “fashion designers” too, though they concede this objection is getting harder to sustain now they have shown their clothes a dozen times at London fashion week. They also have enough celebrity admirers to fill Grazia many times over: Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus have all worn Vin + Omi. Walking in their shows they’ve had rappers, Jane Horrocks, the boxer Nicola Adams and “someone from Made in Chelsea”.
But what’s certainly true is that Vin and Omi do not really fit in the fashion world. In an industry famed for waste, excess and ethically dubious practices, they try to do things the right way. They started in 2004, working with latex – “really organic and sustainable!” says Omi – and a doomed attempt to make it breathable. This led them on to plastics and a quest to make beautiful, tactile garments from recycled materials.
“We’re on the cover of Recycling & Waste World soon,” mock-boasts Vin, who has a background as a sculptor and in public art projects.
“It’s brilliant,” adds Omi; away from work, the pair have been married for 17 years. “Instead of Vogue, we get Waste World.”
And yet perhaps the day when they appear in both those market‑leading publications isn’t too far away. Scattered around the hotel room are a selection of clothes, made from 12 fabrics unique to Vin + Omi. They are vibrant and outlandish, some are plain bizarre, but what’s really surprising is how enjoyable they are to hold. Most are made from recycled and often salvaged plastics, but there’s also a no-kill fleece and a “leather-esque” vest made from chestnut skins.
“When the first T-shirt made from plastic came back we were amazed – it was softer than a normal cotton T-shirt by far,” says Vin. “That had to come from Canada, which was a shame, but people would ask, ‘Is this silk?’ And we’d say, ‘No, it’s 11 small plastic Evian bottles.’”
Perhaps their biggest champion is Debbie Harry. Last year, they created the wardrobe for Blondie’s world tour: 12 pieces all made from recycled or salvaged plastic included blouses, capes and an especially eye-catching smock inscribed with “Stop Fucking the Planet” in block capitals. “Debbie said, ‘Just design me anything,’” recalls Vin. “And we said, ‘Are you sure? Right, it’s going to be Stop Fucking the Planet and you’re wearing it.’ And she did.”
Vin and Omi certainly enjoy a mischievous stunt. They are currently collecting Coca-Cola bottles. The beverage giant sells more than 110bn single-use plastic bottles every year according to Greenpeace, and has promised to collect and recycle the equivalent of all its packaging by 2030, but has been lambasted by the environmental group for not setting a target on reducing the amount of plastic it production. When they have enough bottles, Vin and Omi will create a lavish garment and hand-deliver it to Coca-Cola’s CEO. Omi smiles, “The note will say, ‘Look, we can help bring your quota down. You can use this for your marketing.’”
Until now, Vin and Omi have concentrated on one-off, high-fashion pieces, but in the next year or so, they would like to open a shop in London selling more affordable designs. They also hope that more established labels will start to follow their path. “Eventually, plastic will be banned,” predicts Vin, “but in the interim period, if all designers did what we were doing on a larger scale, there would be no plastic in the ocean. They would pay to have salvage operations, because they’d get free raw material. It’s a lot of planning, but it’s worth it.”
Rodrigo García González and Pierre-Yves Paslier: ‘Corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to try something else’
When people hear the concept for Ooho!, they often assume it’s a joke. Much like the notion of food pills, the idea of water delivered in a transparent membrane you swallow whole seems too futuristic for 2018. “When we started crowdfunding, people called us fake news,” says Pierre-Yves Paslier, the 30-year-old French co-founder of Skipping Rocks Lab, the east London-based startup that makes Ooho!. “They couldn’t believe it was a real thing.”
“We had to organise events for investors,” adds 33-year-old co-founder, Rodrigo García González, a Spaniard, “so they could touch it, taste it and see it was real.”
I can confirm that Ooho! very much exists, but there is definitely something bizarre about popping the little pouches in your mouth. First, you explode it in your cheek and get a pleasant rush of filtered water. Then you decide what to do with the membrane, which is made from seaweed – you can spit it out – it is biodegradable in four to six weeks – or you can chew it. “It has a bit of texture, it doesn’t really have a specific taste,” explains Paslier. “It’s a texture found a lot in south-east Asian food, but we are not very familiar with it in the west.”
García González and Paslier met while studying for a masters in innovation design engineering, offered jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. The idea for Ooho!, says García González, was borrowed from the natural world: “In nature, to contain liquids, such as fruits or eggs, they normally use membranes. It’s the most efficient way to contain any type of liquid, because you need the minimum amount of material.” This led them on to spherification, a process invented in the 1950s that was then used to make fake caviar and had a revival in 2003 at Ferran Adrià’s modernist restaurant, elBulli. Since their discovery, Skipping Rocks Lab has been working out how to refine and package its offering.
There is obviously a market to disrupt here. It’s estimated that 1m plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world. García González and Paslier cheerfully accept that it would be better if everyone carried reusable bottles and there were plenty of water fountains. However, until that’s the case, they believe Ooho! can fill a gap at music festivals, running events, offices and takeaway lunch spots. Ultimately, sachets will be delivered by an on-site dispenser like a coffee machine. These should start rolling out later in the year.
Skipping Rocks Lab believes its technology could be adapted to face other challenges such as disposable cutlery or coffee cups. And its experience of crowdfunding suggests that there is public demand. Recently, it set out to raise £400,000 via Crowdcube; in the event, 900 investors pledged almost £850,000. “People are ready for an alternative,” says Paslier. “The corporations think they can keep on with the current system but people are desperate to switch to something else.”
It might seem surprising that a European-led company would choose Brexit Britain as a base, but García González and Paslier insist they are happy here. They have received strong support from Imperial College and Innovate UK and have a close relationship with other startups such as Aeropowder, which creates new materials from waste feathers. “It’s still really great to be here,” says Paslier. “The clean-tech sector is booming.”
Siân Sutherland:‘What we’re asking for is difficult, but we have to turn off the plastic tap’
“I’m probably your least likely eco-warrior,” says Siân Sutherland, a 56-year-old British entrepreneur and co-founder of the campaign group A Plastic Planet. I have an idea what she means – she has glitter on her jacket and bag and her blond hair is flecked with blue – but I ask her to clarify. “There’s a bit of a mould isn’t there, where you think, ‘She’s a right old activist.’ You know, knitted armpits, sandals. But there’s a whole new wave now – it doesn’t have to define your look.”
For most of her life, Sutherland had given little thought to the environment. In her 20s, she opened and ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in Soho; she has also set up a design and branding agency and founded a skincare brand for pregnant women. “I did that for 10 years in the UK and the US, so you can imagine that my personal plastic footprint is huge,” she says. “It’s a very competitive space and I didn’t really think about what happens to those white plastic bottles afterwards.”
A Plastic Planet was born when she was asked by an old friend, Frederikke Magnussen, to help with the launch of a documentary, A Plastic Ocean. This was 2016 and, says Sutherland, you had to “strong-arm” anyone to take any interest in the subject. But she and Magnussen quickly realised that this was a problem that went far beyond the oceans and started their campaign.
“You go to your supermarket and it’s a sea of plastic and you have no choice,” says Sutherland. “It’s almost like this human right has been taken from us. So this is really about two unreasonable women saying, ‘Why can it be that we’re now made to feel bad about our shopping habits and we have no choice?’”
Right now, A Plastic Planet has a very straightforward goal: a plastic-free aisle in every supermarket. It focuses on this area because this is where Sutherland and Magnussen believe they can make the greatest difference. In Europe in 2016, 40% of all plastic was used for packaging, and nearly half of that wrapped food and drink. Earlier this year, a Guardian investigation estimated that British supermarkets were responsible for more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year; that’s enough to bury Greater London 2.5cm deep.
“It’s indefensible for us to use something that is so indestructible as plastic, which we now know is going to exist on the planet for centuries, to just wrap our perishable food and drink in,” Sutherland seethes. “It makes no sense. We just got it wrong.”
A Plastic Planet’s campaign has already made global headlines. The world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle opened in February in Amsterdam. Ekoplaza, a Dutch chain, had around 700 products at its pilot launch and everything was packaged, just in glass, metal, cardboard or a compostable, plant-based biofilm.
“We really had no idea it would be the media storm that it was,” says Sutherland. “Personally I did 55 interviews in 24 hours. But the story is not: the people of Amsterdam can buy plastic-free; this is a message to the world that we don’t need to wait five years. We don’t need to wait 25 years definitely. I’ll be dead. Half the planet will be dead. We can do it now.”
In the UK, Sutherland has not yet spoken to Theresa May or Michael Gove, the environment secretary, though she offers them both an open invitation. But she has had discussions with the firm Iceland, which has committed to eliminate plastic packaging for all its own-brand products by 2023, and also the Co-op, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer: “I love the fact that this is not an affordability issue and it can’t be.” A Plastic Planet also receives inquiries from around the world – recently Portugal, Korea and China. “China will save the world in my opinion,” she says.
Sutherland does not lecture individuals – “I’m no plastic saint” – but she thinks the main thing we can do is support any supermarket with a plastics-reduction scheme.
“The quicker they do this, we the public have to make it a success,” she says. “Because I know what we’re asking for is difficult; it is inconvenient, it might have a cost implication. But it’s essential. We can’t hide behind words like ‘recycling’ any more. They are not the solution. We have to turn off the plastic tap.”
Bex Band and Erin Bastian: ‘Every change that’s happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance’
For the inaugural Paddle Pickup last year a group of women kayaked from Bristol to London. They covered 300km in 15 days, negotiated 151 canal locks and collected 3,240 pieces of plastic pollution. “We pulled out all sorts of weird stuff,” says 29-year-old adventurer Bex Band, who came up with the idea along with Erin Bastian, also 29. “We found a Santa Claus, chairs, bikes, a rubber duck, Viagra. A bag of class A drugs … ”
What did she do with those? “I disposed of the contents and took the plastic away,” Band laughs. “And I thought: ‘Maybe that’s not the right thing to do. Maybe the fish wouldn’t appreciate that.’”
Band first made contact with Bastian, a sea kayak guide and founder of Evoke Adventure, after seeing her website: “We’re both in the adventure scene and it’s quite a small scene,” says Band. The idea for Paddle Pickup came up in that first conversation and two months later they were on the water. The trip was great fun, but their main takeaway was the realisation of just how dirty Britain’s waterways have become. “I had a day in Reading where it was so bad we weren’t even scraping the surface,” says Bastian. “And you can’t help thinking, ‘What difference are we actually making? It’s not even 1% of the plastic that’s there.’”
“It’s a constant battle, where I’m trying to fight this hopelessness,” adds Band. “But if we don’t have hope, we have nothing. People say ‘What’s the point?’ But every change that’s ever happened in the history of mankind has come from individuals taking a stance.”
So, undeterred, Paddle Pickup returns at the end of May and this time they are kayaking from one end of Wales to the other, via the river Severn, again collecting plastic as they go. This trip is 240km, and it’s divided into three, five-day sections. A few places are still available; no previous kayaking experience required.
Why just women? “A lot of women struggle to get involved in adventure because it’s such a competitive and masculine environment and they’re lacking in confidence,” says Band, whose company Love Her Wild specialises in all-female expeditions. “So by making it all women, it breaks down that barrier.”
If last time is anything to go by, the trip will be hard but rewarding. And it might just be the start of something: one woman from the 2017 Paddle Pickup is now cycling around New Zealand, speaking in schools about plastic pollution; another is rowing across the Pacific Ocean. “It’s a ripple effect,” says Bastian. “You go on one adventure and then you’re like: ‘Now I can think bigger.’”
Band and Bastian hope they can inspire informal Paddle Pickups all over the country – and that, as word spreads, change will follow. Band says: “My favourite message from the last trip was one guy who said that he’d read about us in the local paper. He went to buy his lunch that morning as usual and he didn’t buy a water bottle, he used a reusable one. And he said he wasn’t going to buy a [disposable] water bottle again. That’s amazing: we can take away the plastic, but that doesn’t solve the long-term problem. We need people to change their habits.”
Unlike conventional price comparison sites, which require people to actively search for a better deal and input their details and energy use, Labrador will automatically switch people’s accounts when it finds a cheaper tariff.
Jane Lucy, founder and CEO of Labrador, said: “We’re not about behaviour change: we assume consumer lethargy will remain.”
Flipper is a similar service that launched in 2016, relying on accessing a customer’s energy bills, which might be estimated. Labrador believes it will be more accurate, as it use a device that plugs into a customer’s broadband router and talks wirelessly to their smart meters, taking readings direct from them.
While Flipper charges an annual £25 fee, Labrador makes its money like a switching site, by being paid an acquisition fee by suppliers.
Lucy said she expected customers would be switched 1-3 times a year and save on average £300 a year. They are given the choice to tailor their preferences, for example, to just green energy tariffs.
The company has signed up about 500 customers since a soft launch in February, but aims to take 3% of the switching market within five years. In the future the company may branch out into home automation and helping consumers identify individual energy-guzzling appliances, Lucy said.
The war on plastic waste is extending to the UK’s favourite beverage, with a major retailer in the final stages of developing a fully biodegradable paper teabag that does not contain plastic.
The Co-op is to make its own-brand Fairtrade 99 teabags free of polypropylene, a sealant used industry wide to enable teabags to hold their shape, and the guilt-free brew is due to go on sale by the end of the year.
The scale of the problem is huge. According to the trade body the UK Tea and Infusions Association, teabags account for a whopping 96% of the 165 million cups of tea drunk every day in the UK. Anti-plastic campaigners have been appealing to consumers to use loose tea or “greener” options such as Japanese-style “pyramids” made of 100% compostable corn starch, but these are more expensive than mainstream mass-produced teabags.
The Co-op, which sells 4.6m boxes of tea a year (367m teabags) has joined forces with its tea supplier, Typhoo, and Ahlstrom-Munksjö – specialists in sustainable fibre solutions – to develop a method of heat-sealing bags to eliminate the more widely used plastic seal.
The biodegradable bag will undergo rigorous testing next month and could be on shelves later this year. It is intended to be rolled out across the Co-op’s entire own-label standard tea range and will be fully compostable in food waste collections.
“Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the teabag from their daily cuppa is sealed using plastic,” said Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food. “Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the 6bn cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the UK, we are looking at around 150 tonnes of polypropylene – that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill.”
But the UK Tea and Infusions Association warned of higher prices for consumers. A spokesman said: “The UK tea industry has been experimenting with non-plastic sealing methods, but those methods are costly. The raw material cost and upgrades to machinery would increase the cost of a bag by about eight times if we were to move to a non-plastic sealing procedure now. We know that a significant price rise would have a severely negative effect on sales and seriously reduce the income of farmers from some of the poorest tea-growing regions of the world.”
A new study shows how home wood burning is worsening air quality in UK towns and cities. Wood burning is adding between 24% and 31% to the particle pollution emitted in Birmingham and London. Many people think that this is a harmless form of heating, but it is often hard to see the impact of a pollutant until it is taken away.
That’s exactly what researchers did in three studies. Between 2005 and 2007, 1,110 old wood stoves were replaced in the small town of Libby, Montana. Wintertime particle pollution reduced by 28% and children had less wheeze, respiratory infections and sore throats. After banning wood burning on 100 of the most polluted days in California’s San Joaquin Valley in 2012, between 7% and 11% fewer old people were admitted to hospital with different types of heart problems. Finally, particle pollution dropped by 40% in Launceston, Tasmania when many wood-burning homes were converted to electric heating. Death rates in the over-65s fell by about 10%, an effect most clearly seen in men. In contrast, there were no matching health changes in nearby Hobart, which was outside the conversion scheme.
Last year was one of the greenest for power in the UK. Nearly one-third of all electricity came from renewable sources, and wind and solar provided more power than coal on 315 days of the year. Rapid growth in both solar and wind (the UK now has more offshore wind power capacity than any other country in the world) has enabled the UK to achieve these impressive statistics, but will the rise in renewables also make UK power more vulnerable to the whims of British weather?
Researchers working on the European Climatic Energy Mixes project have been investigating future risk by assessing how the UK would fare with a repeat of the unusually cold winter of 2009-10. From mid-December 2009 a southward-displaced jet stream allowed cold air to pour in from eastern Europe, bringing widespread snow and plunging temperatures. The mean UK temperature for the entire winter was just 1.5C, the lowest since 1978-79 when it was 1.2C . As a result power demand surged, with electricity consumption between 10 and 20% above average on a number of occasions.
Back in 2010 renewables provided less than 10% of UK electricity. But similar weather now might create a strain. “The low wind conditions in a repeat of winter 2009-10 would lead to a substantial reduction in wind power production over the season, which could lead to increased risks to electricity supply availability when combined with an increased demand due to low temperatures,” writes meteorologist Emma Suckling from the University of Reading. Winters like this might be getting rarer, but we still need a contingency plan when the wind fails to blow.
This year I’m going real. Given the plastic pandemic, my goodwill doesn’t extend to manufacturers of oil-based fake trees shipped across the globe.
From an ecological point of view, all cut trees are imperfect. Three-quarters of the trees put up this Christmas in the UK will be grown here (this at least cuts down on tree miles). But these trees are raised on plantations that are as quick growing as possible. They are not carefully calibrated forests for the benefit of the future.
A standard UK forestry guide I came across cheerfully recommended to growers that they apply glyphosate in summer (this is the weedkiller that controversially just had its licence renewed in the EU) and a spritz of another pesticide in the winter.
There are few agronomic studies of Christmas tree growing. But one from US researchers reports that pesticide residues are not found on harvested trees by Christmas. If that offers cold comfort, seek out a certified organic tree.
Christmas trees are grown from seed held in cones and stored in the crown 30m above ground – these are then collected by cone pickers. The seeds for our plantations largely come from Georgia. Here, campaigns on the human cost of the industry have uncovered exploitation and dangerous working conditions. In 2010 a Danish company started to produce fair trade Christmas trees grown by workers paid a fair wage in decent conditions.
Of course, by Boxing Day it is hard to remember that the disco ball in the corner is a forest product at all, let alone that it needs returning to the earth as mulch via a recycling scheme. But this is your chance to claw back some eco advantage. Better still, if you’ve got a good-quality potted tree, shake the tinsel, replant and nurture for the next 12 months.
The big picture: watching Alaska’s whales
Advanced drone technology in the form of the Parley SnotBot was recently sent on an expedition to study whales in Alaska. Finds included the identification of a whale from a past expedition and a confirmed pregnancy in another, all discovered without the need to leave the boat and disturb the whales. It has been described as the new frontier of non-invasive marine research.
Well dressed: get a head start with a carbon fibre helmet
To wear or not to wear? As the debate over cycling helmets and whether they should be mandatory rumbles on, the idea of designing better helmets seems to have been eclipsed.
But Catherine Bedford has been quietly getting on with designing a small, lightweight carbon fibre helmet. Bedford, with a background as a designer of accessories for luxury brands, has transferred values around premium craftsmanship into her helmet design.
The carbon fibre shell is hand-finished by a family-owned factory in Cornwall which manufactures helmets for the military and marine industry, and the harness webbing is sourced from Derbyshire.
Already featured as ‘an accessory of the future’ at last year’s Cycle Revolution exhibition at the Design Museum, the Dashel helmet has now arrived.
‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”
But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.
“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”
No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”
Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”
1. Methane: getting to the meat
Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.
The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.
What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.
New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”
Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”
Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
2. Renewable energy: time to shine
The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.
This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.
In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.
3. King coal: dead or dying
The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.
“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.
Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”
4. Electric cars: in the fast lane
Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.
China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.
“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.
“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.
It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.
Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.
Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”
It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.
6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts
Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.
Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.
But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”
In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.
The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.
This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.
In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.
The race against time
Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”
Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.
“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”
So where is progress happening? We asked readers to send us examples and here we explore three ways businesses are trying to curb plastics use. Do you have other examples? Add them to the comments below or tweet them to us @GuardianSustBiz and we’ll share the best examples on our Twitter feed over the coming week.
1. Minimising packaging
If you’ve been at the receiving end of an online purchase that has come swamped in plastic in an oversized box you’ll know how frustrating it can be. The answer seems simple – pack the product in something smaller and minimise the need for so-called void fillers such as polystyrene chips inside. Yet companies are often constrained by the limited range of box sizes available.
Meet Slimbox, a machine which helps companies create customised packaging boxes in-house to reduce cardboard and filler waste. At €25,000 (£23,100) per machine, Slimbox CEO Filip Roose says he’s aware how important return on investment is to his customers.
“We’ve calculated that if a company sends at least 30 packages a day then it should get a return on investment after approximately two years,” says Roose. “The more they send, the shorter this timeframe.”
As well as reducing costs over time, Roose highlights the environmental benefits: “Yes you reduce packaging use, but you also reduce carbon emissions by being able to transport more packages at once.”
A number of shops now offer people the ability to bring in their own Tupperware, bottles and jars to refill with items like pulses, nuts, grains and washing-up liquid.
Splosh has taken this concept online, enabling customers to buy concentrated laundry and cleaning product refills, which arrive by post in plastic pouches that can then be posted back to the company free of charge for re-use.
“The problem of plastic waste cannot be solved while we still buy from supermarkets, because single-use plastics are essential to their business model,” says Angus Grahame, founder of Splosh.”
Splosh’s refillable concentrates, says Grahame, enable customers to cut plastic waste for most laundry, home cleaning and personal care products by around 95%. “We believe the move to the circular economy is about massive new business model opportunity rather than tweaking decades old systems as the likes of Unilever are trying to do,” he adds. “The value destruction to existing brands when it happens, and it will happen quickly, will be awesome.”
3. Banning plastics altogether
London’s Borough Market has pledged to phase out sales of all single-use plastic bottles over the next six months, offering free drinking water from newly installed fountains instead.
Similarly, some bars and restaurants have started to ban straws in an effort to reduce the volume of plastics that end up in the oceans. The city of Seattle is taking this a step further next month with its Strawless September campaign to get local businesses to switch to paper alternatives where necessary, and ditch straws altogether where possible.
Despite Marks & Spencer’s “apple tubes” and plastic-wrapped plastic cutlery, the company has been exploring innovative alternatives to plastic packaging. By tattooing avocados rather than using produce stickers, for example, it intends to save 10 tonnes of plastic labels and backing paper and five tonnes of adhesive every year.
Cosmetics company Lush takes a very clear position when it comes to packaging: the ideal is none at all (approximately half of Lush products can be purchased without any packaging, according to the company website). By creating a solid shampoo bar, Lush claims it saves nearly 6m plastic bottles globally every year. What’s more, since the bars are more concentrated than liquid shampoo, less is needed per wash, resulting in lower carbon emissions from transportation.
Have you got any other examples? Add them to the comments below or tweet them to us @GuardianSustBiz.