Not all waste is obvious. There has rightly been an increase in awareness of plastic waste with campaigns initiated after the Blue Planet series, relating to the plastic waste in our oceans. In particular, single use plastic in consumer items such as straws, cups etc. It is laudable that campaigns run by some of the larger retailers such as Waitrose will eliminate such items. Unilever, who is regarded as one of the more ethically minded and sustainability minded large corporations have responded by removing plastic from teabags. It is easy to castigate large organisations for not responding to these issues quick enough. However, this is a social problem, and once awareness of such issues is heightened by such programmes as Blue Planet, then society will apply the appropriate pressure. Consumers need to change their buying behaviour and be prepared to accept less of these products, by buying into the concept of multi-use, recycling and low impact products. This concept has been known about for some time, so what is different ? Unfortunately, like it or not, humans are both creatures of habit, and are “lazy”, which means they seek the path of least resistance, low risk for them, comfort, and “repeatability”. This of course compounds the issue, and thus is a clear factor that will reduce the pace of change.
How do companies fit into this cycle?
Some product companies maybe making good profits, but the manufacturing arm is under huge pressure, mainly driven by the consumer wanting cheaper product, but also by global competition and mechanisation. This of course is not a bad thing, but re-tooling factories is expensive, and inevitably moving away from products or packaging containing single use to more sustainable substrates or components, can involve significant capital. When margins are tight and getting tighter, how do you generate the revenue to release capital or get loans? This is not an easy conundrum, especially with AI and advancing mechanisation, e.g.which tooling do you invest in? Furthermore, your new machine could be outdated and inefficient soon.
All these factors generate a complex problem. There is no doubt that purchasing habits must change, and possibly raising the price for the end product which some have mooted, might help. The further conundrum is where does this extra money go? If it is in the form of a “Tax”, does this go for awareness campaigns, better recycling/processing or R&D into sustainable components ?All of these help, but if we follow the principle that the money/help should go to the companies that are most squeezed, then this should be the manufacturers. There is central funding for new machinery administered by the Local Enterprise Partnership and other bodies, and “UK plc” needs to fund mechanisms post Brexit. However, if you follow the principle, that necessity is the mother of invention, then manufacturers have the opportunity to take more control, and take hidden wastes out of their own processes. If we further follow the Lean mindset, i.e. the customer is only prepared to pay for what they have value for, then manufacturers must look at all their internal processes with a “Lean Approach”. As Lean has been around for 40+ years, significant gains have already been made, but it is all too easy to declare victory early, and not seek continuous improvement and reinvention. There is also a tendency to only look at one aspect or dimension of waste. At L2S, we see four distinct dimensions of waste. We deliberately call them dimensions not categories, because it is not just lean tools /approaches, that will reduce them, it is the mindset. Our dimensions are Process, Energy, Environmental and Transaction Based. The key point is that they are all interrelated, and if you attack one, it is likely you will positively impact the others directly or indirectly. It is also critical that manufacturers don’t forget all the dimensions when approaching one or two, as the risk of sub-optimisation rears it ugly head. With this approach, we have the greatest chance of continued success, but it takes commitment and employee engagement.
All sorts of elements and agencies in the value chain can help, but ultimately the best and most effective approach is what we can control and influence, or simply let’s not try and “boil the ocean”.
P.S. We are aware of the recent plastic eating enzyme which could solve planet’s plastic pollution issue long term.