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Plastics, are they really that bad?

Eileen Chen is a 2018-19 MBA student at Oxford’s Saïd Business School and a Canadian marketer with four years of experience in the consumer packaged goods industry. Her marketing experience included managing an e-commerce website and developing data-driven recommendations through consumer insights for Keurig Canada. Her current career aspirations are to use marketing’s power to inspire behaviour change in sustainable consumption. Eileen recently attended a talk led by Dr Jake Backus, here she explains her thoughts on the timely but trending topic of plastic.

Did you know that “single-use” was 2018’s word of the year? (Source)

Dr Jake Backus, founder of Empathy Sustainability, Common Ground (sustainable co-working space in Oxford), and previous Sustainability Director at Coca-Cola Europe, delivered a speech to Oxford students on “Plastics & Ocean Plastics – what’s the problem and what’s the solution? Emotion has galvanised action, but is it the right action?”.

Only 14% of materials are collected for recycling, which means we are losing $80-$120 billion in value – recycling is not only a sustainable solution, but one which can financially make sense. We learned about the nuances of material recovery, and how counterintuitively, plastic is not entirely bad. For instance, 60% of the energy used to create plastic can be recovered in recycling it.

Another myth Dr Backus debunked was that, although bioplastic and compostable solutions sound better, most can only biodegrade in industrial composting facilities which are few and far between.

The main solutions offered were to encourage reuse and recycling, as much of the energy used to manufacture virgin plastic can be recovered in the recycling process and because they utilize existing waste management systems. There is much opportunity for nudging behaviour change in compelling ways, in order to incentivize consumers and businesses to act. For example, one of the issues is that recovering plastic has low value – what if we governments assigned artificial values to plastic? Beijing, and a few other cities, started accepting plastic bottles as train fare; can this model be scaled further?

To summarize, his top 5 priorities (in order) are:

  1. Avoid – if you don’t need it, stop it
  2. Reduce
  3. Reuse and refill
  4. Recycle
  5. Create energy from waste
  6. Avoid landfills and oceans

Thank you Dr Jake Backus for the educational and engaging talk!

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