‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure’ is an insight usually attributed to Peter Drucker, probably the most famous management consultant of all time. When applied to plastic, it is perhaps best coupled with the advice of any number of health and welfare counsellors: the first step towards overcoming any addiction is to recognise that you really do have a serious problem.
To be fair, thanks to the efforts of Sir David Attenborough and myriad campaigners, there is a widespread and growing understanding that our species and the planet do indeed have a serious problem with plastic pollution. However, I don’t think that most of us have truly grasped just how huge that problem is.
Every month brings fresh reports on some new aspect of this continuing environmental disaster: in August it was the UK National Oceanography Centre revealing that plastic pollution in the Atlantic is at least ten times worse than previously thought.
In response, some of our leading NGOs are convening global brands to take bold voluntary action and every responsible business is at least paying lip service to doing something about it, with almost weekly announcements of new initiatives by other retailers and manufacturers. But the problem is that we are all taking different approaches, setting non-comparable targets, and reporting progress in inconsistent and often externally uncheckable ways. We need context.
It is all too easy to announce some relatively small action on plastics and bask briefly in positive headlines and public kudos, sure in the knowledge that no one will ever be able to check whether it has made any tangible impact on the total amount of plastic waste entering our rivers and oceans. We are missing the tools that allow proper public accountability and transparency.
This can all change if everyone adopts a consistent, nationwide approach that we all share, which will enable all of us to see who is genuinely making progress towards solving the problem.
Retailers tend to focus on one small area – such as plastic bags – or on their own label products, because that is the area of their business over which it is easiest to exercise control. We did this ourselves when we announced in January 2018 that we aimed to eliminate all plastic packaging from the Iceland own label range by the end of 2023.
That project is going well, with our own label plastic usage down by 29% by the end of 2019, and continues to make progress despite Covid. But it only tells part of the story.
To tell the rest of it, we have decided today to publish for the first time Iceland’s full plastic footprint, including both the branded and own label products we sell in the UK and internationally, and the secondary and tertiary plastic we use in our depots and distribution system. You can read our full report here.
The results are simply terrifying: in the single year 2019 we generated more than 1.8 billion items using primary plastic, and over 100 million items of secondary and tertiary plastic.
Even more terrifying is the context that we are a relatively small player in UK food retailing, with just 2.5% of the national grocery market. Do the maths and scale up our plastic waste for the food retail industry as a whole, then add non-food retailing and all the other businesses in every sector that are using plastic to protect and package their goods. The total will be almost unimaginably mind-boggling.
The good news is that finding out all the information we are publishing was relatively cheap and painless. Like every other business with a turnover of over £2 million and handling more than 50 tonnes of packaging a year, we have to report our packaging waste figures to the Government under the Packaging Waste Recovery Note (PRN) scheme.
Knowing how simply this can be done, we are not only publishing our own total plastic footprint, but calling on all other UK retailers and businesses to do the same. We are supported in this call by four of the leading campaign groups on plastic pollution: Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, A Plastic Planet and Surfers Against Sewage.
Furthermore, we are urging the Government to make the public reporting of this information – which, remember, every large business involved in packaging already possesses – mandatory through an amendment to the Environment Bill. We are also joining campaigners in pressing for bold and clear national plastic pollution reduction targets to be included in this Bill.
I’m not suggesting this with the aim of embarrassing or upsetting anyone, or trying to claim some special moral high ground for Iceland. I just strongly believe that we are only going to make real progress on the critical challenge of ocean plastic pollution if we achieve genuine transparency on the scale of the problem and true comparability on the solutions so many of us are trying to implement.
Because, to conclude with another universally acclaimed aphorism: honesty is always the best policy.