How plastic bags helped us grasp the bigger picture

7791437584_617626e707_kThis post is by Dr Colin Church, CEO of CIWM, the leading institution for resources and waste management, and the chair of the Circular Economy Task Force.

In the resource management sector, when a group of ‘strategic colleagues’ meets up, one of the conversations I’ve often heard around the table is a lament as to why politicians and the media are so focused on carrier bags, or plastic bottles, or coffee cups, or any other single product or waste stream in the news that day. They argue that this is deflecting attention from the holistic and more important bigger picture around resource productivity and the circular economy. Given that several of these specific issues featured in Michael Gove’s first keynote speech on the environment recently, I imagine this conversation is live once more.

Personal experience is more engaging
But, wait a moment. Let’s think about this from a human perspective. How do most of us come to consider big issues? Personally, I am led into them via some specific element, some personal experience or practical example. That piques my interest, I get engaged and want to find out more. I start to grasp the wider context. But if you start me off with the abstract, and more general, big picture, I may switch off and never engage. This, I think, is only human.

Why should we expect resource productivity and the circular economy to be any different? Why should we expect politicians and journalists to take a different path to understanding than the rest of us? And, if this is true, should we not recognise the importance of what I call ‘gateway issues’ (by analogy with recreational drug use) as routes to get political and media attention on both the tactical specific and, in time, the strategic general?

I think there is evidence of this starting to happen. The introduction in England of the 5p carrier bag charge led not only to a precipitous fall in their use and wastage, but also, I would argue, to raising awareness amongst consumers of the wider issues of plastic pollution, especially for the marine environment. There are now proposed bans on disposable plastic cutlery in France and microbeads in household products in the UK and, more broadly, there is a growing realisation that humanity must move away from plastics towards more sustainable materials.

Media campaigns have been criticised, but they help
In my own experience, ministerial interest in resource management often followed on from being exposed to the community-damaging effects of waste crime. Campaigns focusing on plastic bottles and coffee cups by TV celebrities and media companies have been criticised, but I would argue that they do help. It is notable that Mr Gove in his speech made the link, placing tackling plastic bottles in the context of a “renewed strategy on waste and resources that looks ahead to opportunities outside the EU.”

I’m not saying that we should stop worrying about the wider context and just focus on a few individual streams. Apart from anything else, there are too many examples in the past of where doing that has caused a major long term issue (just think about diesel cars, promoted at one stage for their lower carbon emissions, now the villain as the main source of toxic air pollution). I am, though, saying we should recognise and welcome the role gateway issues play in getting decision makers and influencers engaged with the issues around resource and waste management which, in the end, will help us all move towards a more sustainable, resource efficient future.

[Image: Bath … Plastic bag selection by Barry W from Flickr Creative Commons]

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