Is it fair to blame Coca-Cola and big corporations for our waste crisis?

When John Sauven, executive director at Greenpeace UK, heard a woman complain on the radio that supermarket croissants were cheaper to buy wrapped in plastic than paper, he was so startled he went straight to his local Co-op

“It was true,” Sauven said at a recent Guardian roundtable discussion on the future of waste. “If I bought two croissants in a brown paper bag, it was 79p [each], and if I bought them in a big plastic container it was 63p [each]. And I just thought … this is a complete failure of the system.”

The failure, of course, goes far beyond croissants. From the 300,000 tonnes of clothing the UK sent to landfill last year to the 7m coffee cups we chuck out each day, the scale of our throwaway habits are startlingly clear.

So too are the impacts: images of bags and bottles washed up on beaches, or sea life tangled in plastic netting, give grim credence to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s now familiar prediction that the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

The role of business in addressing this crisis has become the subject of fierce debate in industry and policy circles. And that was clearly on show at a Guardian roundtable event, sponsored by recycling and resource management company Suez.

New business models needed

A key idea under discussion was the circular economy, a model that aims to keep resources in a perpetual, benign cycle, rather than send them to the dump after first use. While companies at the table, including Marks & Spencer and the Co-op, have publicly embraced the concept, Sauven argued that without greater ambition and more radical change from business, the circular economy risked becoming another buzzword.

“We need to make sure this doesn’t just replace sustainability … and that we keep creating words which don’t actually mean very much in terms of substance,” Sauven said. “What we’re talking about is not just tinkering with the system, we’re talking about a much more systemic shift.”

A particular flashpoint for the roundtable was the release of a new packaging plan by Coca-Cola. The soft drinks giant has become emblematic of big business’s contribution to the waste problem thanks in part to a high profile campaign by Greenpeace, which claims the company generates more than 100bn plastic bottles a year.

Coca-Cola has promised to up the recycled content of its bottles to 50% by 2020 and research the impact of deposit return schemes (DRS), where consumers are asked to pay a refundable deposit on cans or bottles. It has also launched a campaign “to encourage people to recycle and dissuade littering”, said Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners.

“We know communication on recycling is really difficult, it tends to be quite factual … there’s a bit more we think can be done to change behaviour, around making more of an emotional connection and explaining the benefits of recycling.”

For Carina Millstone, executive director at food waste campaign group Feedback, these pledges missed the true scope of the change needed to create a sustainable society. In fact, she argued, the resource-extractive, consumption-based business model of a global corporation such as Coca-Cola was fundamentally incompatible with the needs of the planet.

“The idea of driving public awareness, making it easier for people [to recycle], isn’t going to cut it … Coca-Cola will not exist if we achieve sustainability. That’s the reality of it,” she said.

New business models that promote longevity and durability of goods are needed instead, argued Millstone. Such a transformation would require a “re-regionalisation of economies”, away from the low-cost globalised production model that has made it cheaper, for example, to buy a new pair of shoes than repair old ones, she said.

“Back in the day, we had cobblers all over the place. We don’t any more … because the big companies that dominate and create our way of life have figured out it’s cheaper to manufacture shoes elsewhere, taking advantage of lax environmental regulation and poor resource use, and the relative cost of labour.”

Local creativity

Millstone is not alone in seeing a “local, vibrant economy” as key to solving an integrated set of resource and social challenges. Already, the UK is dotted with repair cafes, which provide tools, materials and advice to locals wanting to fix anything from bicycles to crockery.

Sophie Unwin, founder of Remade in Edinburgh, a social enterprise that teaches repair skills and sells refurbished computers and furniture, is part of this movement. As well as keeping goods out of landfill, her business has created 10 jobs over the past three years, she said.

Meanwhile, Cat Fletcher, the Brighton-based director of online reuse network Freegle, has been working with artists and designers to turn hard-to-recycle goods such as office in-trays into new items like sunglasses and light fittings.

“There’s a great opportunity with hyper-local creativity,” said Fletcher. “It’s happening all over the world. There’s Precious Plastics who are making little machines, which you can literally have at home and reprocess your own plastic, and maybe turn it into fibre for a 3D printer, or mould it into pot plants.

“There’s an entire mall in Sweden which only has second-hand, upcycled goods … There is unlimited potential in what you can do. It’s a matter of tapping into the existing people and helping them.”

Calls for government action

But can this community approach drive change fast enough? David Palmer-Jones, chief executive of Suez UK, which processes around 9m tonnes of waste per year, was doubtful. “What we fail to recognise is the scale,” he said. “Local initiatives are fantastic to show what can be done … [But] to get scale and get speed of change we require government intervention.”

While there were calls for the government to implement a compulsory, nationwide DRS, Iain Ferguson, environment manager at the Co-op, warned against clumsy, top-down solutions.

“Voluntary systems give you the opportunity to be flexible and innovative,” he said. “Badly designed mandatory schemes shut that down”. The correct approach would fuse the two and incorporate a system of rewards, he added.

For many around the table, better coordination at Westminster, where responsibility for waste falls between different departments, was essential. Phil Cumming, senior sustainability manager at M&S, pointed to Scotland – which has a dedicated agency, Zero Waste Scotland, to deliver the government’s circular economy strategy – as a more effective example.

Rauno Raal, chief executive of the organisation that runs Estonia’s hugely successful DRS, argued that his country also offered a useful lesson. Since 2005, Estonian customers have paid shops a deposit on a bottle of cola, for example, which they can reclaim as a discount on the next purchase if they return the empty bottle. Last year, 75% of cans and 87% of PET bottles were returned.

The scheme was only made possible, said Raal, by government action. “The discussion here is exactly the same as in Estonia 12 years ago. All the retailers were afraid, the producers were afraid … everyone was fighting against the return scheme. The government asked all the producers and retailers to be at the table and said, very clearly, ‘OK, you don’t want a DRS, then we will do it as a governmental institution’.”

But if the government is key, so too are citizens, added Raal, saying that personal values – inculcated by family and teachers – were vital to changing consumption patterns and conserving resources.

Adam Lusby, lecturer in circular economy implementation at the University of Exeter, disagreed. Consumers – and consumption – were the wrong target, he said. “We don’t need to go on a big campaign to change people’s behaviour, we just need to change how we design stuff.”

That means better product design, but also a better designed economy, one which, as a first step, would tax non-renewable resources, such as the fossil fuels used to make plastic, rather than labour: “Instead of fighting over who does what, there are some good, healthy, macro economic decisions that can be made,” Lusby said.

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