Northumbrian Water Innovation Panel member Piers Clark, Chairman of the Isle Group, looks at plastic waste and how the Innovation Festival is going to set out to tackle the issue.
Like many others across the globe I have been spurred by the reports of the accumulation of waste plastic in our natural environment to change how I live, and in particular to change the relationship I have with single-use plastics. It has not been easy. Try and live a day without creating plastic waste and you will see what I mean. It is impossible. You have to cheat and change the terms of the challenge to ‘single use’ plastics and even then it is nigh-on impossible (less than 5% of plastic is reused). Last week I was in a café explaining to a friend how I had made it to lunchtime with my only plastic discharge being that annoying plastic cap that goes on the top of milk cartons (weighing less than 0.001kg; the typical plastic produced per person is between 0.4kg/day – 0.8kg/day). My impressive run however was broken by the arrival of a smoothie (specifically requested in a glass not a plastic cup) with the worlds’ biggest thickest plastic straw. In a weak lapse in concentration I had lowered my guard and forgotten to stipulate that my drink should be without a plastic straw. It was a rookie error.
I shouldn’t really complain, I have it a little easier than most. As I gracelessly drift into middle age one of the benefits of my receding hairline is that my usage of hair-products, which are invariably contained in plastic, has dropped significantly. It has been 10 years since I used a plastic comb and I hardly ever wash (my hair that is, I am not a complete animal). Nonetheless, when I am in a hotel I still have to actively supress the urge to collect the complimentary bottles of bath foam, shampoo and conditioner. Despite spending half my life in hotels the kleptomaniac in me still hungers to amass these ridiculous freebies, despite them adding nothing whatsoever to the quality of my existence. Like a devout Catholic at confession, I am able to recount exactly how many days it has been since my last shampoo bottle transgression.
Aeroplanes are terrible for plastic usage. The airline hostesses, bless them, bend over backwards to offer a seemingly endless array of single-use plastic items (cups, cutlery, and plastic food containers). It is as if my guilt over the carbon footprint of my travel schedule wasn’t burden enough. At least that I can off-set. Hey Mr Airline, want to give good customer service? How about trusting me with a real knife and fork rather than forcing me to pollute the environment with a silly plastic one?
Of course, I recognise that my appetite for plastic is not my only flaw. There are many other aspects of my life which are equally imperfect and un-environmental: I travel too much, I eat too much red meat, I am about to launch my own unique blend of Shark Fin & Rhino Horn Moisturiser*. But to claim that we shouldn’t address a particular problem simply because there are lots of other problems is wrong, lazy and inexcusable. The build-up of plastic in our environment is an issue we should all get angry about. Righteously angry (the very best sort of angry). A few stray nutters sending their smoothies back because of a stray plastic straw isn’t enough, We need an army of them.
Some people might argue that small changes made by individuals are meaningless and that real change can only be effected by organisations, politicians and policy makers. They are wrong, We cannot leave this issue to The Suits. It is too big and too thorny to be resolved by them alone. It requires widespread engagement. Thankfully there is lots of activity underway. For example this July Northumbrian Water is holding its second annual Innovation Festival. This is a week-long event which follows the format of a typical English summer festival (ie lots of rain….) and will involve over a thousand people, both general public and water professionals alike. During the week there will be a series of ‘Innovation Sprints’ delving into specific problems. Isle (the business I work for) is leading the Sprint on the plastics challenge.
These Sprints are very intense. Over a five-day period problems are systematically scoped, solutions evaluated and advancements proposed, refined and tested. It is intense but, as evidenced from last years’ NWL Innovation Festival, it delivers great results. The combination of technical brainpower, practical experience and sheer, unadulterated can-do attitude all focussed on a target topic is a very powerful tool. Already I have seen some of the potential solutions and they make me quiver with anticipation. I am particularly excited about how the water sector could lead the way with the production of proper biodegradable plastic from sewage sludge (‘proper’ as in fully biodegradable, not the rubbish stuff that is called biodegradable but just breaks into microparticles).
I want you to join me in my Righteous Anger. If you share my passion to address this issue, then please join me in taking action, no matter how small. Cafes will stop using plastic cups only if enough of us make a fuss. It won’t be enough on its own of course. This issue requires a swathe of technical, operational, economic and behavioural solutions, all working in tandem. Perhaps we should start by identifying everyone who disposes of more than 300g/day of plastic and painting their front door with a big red cross.
Perhaps that’s going a little too far. Nonetheless, I suspect the limit to how much our generation can solve this problem so that it does not burden the next is the scale of our imagination. If you want to be part of the Northumbrian Water Innovation Festival and the Innovation Challenge on plastics then please let me know or keep an eye on this website for more details.
*Not all of these are strictly true