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Ocean Talks 2023: Lilly Barclay on how to tackle the plastic pollution crisis now

10 May 2023 • Written by Lucy Dunn

Ocean Talks aims to bring together the superyacht industry and the world of marine conservation for meaningful conversation, networking and action. The 2023 event took place on 8 June and included world-renowned speakers and over a dozen exhibitors showcasing the best and latest ocean-saving projects, initiatives and products.

One such organisation is A Plastic Planet, which was co-founded by Lilly Barclay and Sian Sutherland after the pair met while working on the influential documentary A Plastic Ocean.

Barclay chaired the panel at Ocean Talks 2023 with Sian and Oliver Steeds OBE, chief executive of the NEKTON Foundation and co-founder of Yachts For Science, on the continuing plastic crisis.

Here, she gives BOAT the latest insight on the plastic crisis and gives tips for how to transform your habits and live a low-plastic life.

Q. Has the world woken up to the plastic crisis?

It’s been more than five years since A Plastic Planet launched the world’s very first Plastic Free Aisle in a supermarket in Amsterdam. Five years since the world first truly awakened to the impact of plastic on our planet, and as much as I’d like to say demand has shifted away from this miracle, yet toxic and indestructible material, I simply can’t. Unfortunately, the polar opposite is true and worsening every single day.

Credit: Unsplash

Q. Who are the main culprits?
While a lack of governmental change is of no real surprise, brands, retailers and CPGs (consumer packaged goods) have disappointingly increased their production of plastic, despite the many plastic pledges that were made in the flurry of corporate commitments post Blue Planet II.

Recent findings from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed that most, if not all, household names have completely failed in their mission to reduce or replace plastic, hoping the headline grabbing Ta-Dahs with which they promoted the ambition will mask the woeful lack of follow through.

Q. What about the Plastic Tax?

You’d be forgiven for thinking the advent of this tax one year ago would be slowing this deluge down, but the weakness of the conditions it stipulates - measuring by weight not volume - means little has changed as a result of it.

In fact, according to the United Nations, plastic production is expected to triple by 2040 if we don’t change our take, make, waste consumptive lifestyles, and shift back to a reuse, repair, resell, share and rent system, prioritising resources over renewal.

Q. So is it all doom and gloom?

No. Change is coming – and it will be spurred on by the emergence of legislative pressure from the Global Plastics Treaty and carbon tax measures.

Whether businesses like it or not, these two milestones in the fight for our planet will not only enforce restrictive measures on the use of plastic, but they will also make using the material a potentially costly, growth-swallowing endeavour that far outstrips its existing bottom-line benefits.

Obviously, what all of this means is we need to move beyond the material that’s made single-use behaviour the norm, to alternative materials and consumption systems that mitigate the risks plastic poses to our planet, our health and our businesses.

Luckily, there’s already a wealth of innovative creators bringing this new normal to life, offering brands new business models, consumers new lifestyle practices and the world a fighting chance.

Here are just three of the exciting developments coming down the line fast:

1. Just add water 

A large percentage of our food, drink and beauty products only need packaging in plastic because they contain water, but many of these products can easily be sold without the added H2O, which in some cases makes up over 90% of the product we buy. Given a large majority of people are lucky enough to have water on tap, forward thinking brands are finding ways to remove it from their products, transforming liquid formulas into solid or powdered variations that can be mixed with water at the point of use.

Joi is a case in point. Offering an array of plant-milk concentrates, the brand is tapping into the vegan lifestyle boom with glass jars of nut bases that are blended with water at home, transforming into dairy-free milk. One jar yields 27 servings and saves 85% of the packaging waste associated with aseptic milk cartons.

In the beauty space, ReMI is one to watch, an Australian skincare brand offering solid moisturising bars that are simply lathered on damp skin and stored in reusable ceramic containers. There’s even a powdered (non-alcoholic) beer in the works in Germany.

2. Prefill not refill, multi-use not single-use

We’ve all tried refilling our homecare and personal care in-store. It’s a messy practice that often leads to waste, and the frustration of not remembering the empty packs that need refilling in the first place.

The concept of prefill, however, makes much more sense. Already established, at scale, in countries such as Germany and the US, prefill refers to a system-wide solution that sees reusable standardised packaging filled with product by brands as usual, bought by customers as usual, and then sent back to brands via a universal collection and cleaning process to be filled and sold again.

We are part of one of the biggest initiatives in the UK for the introduction of Reusable Packaging, bringing together competitive brands and retailers to use metal standardised packaging, creating a new normal of how we shop - rewarded, convenient and guilt-free. Watch this space as your high street experience changes for the better in every way.

3. The bottled water "con"

The marketing con (and success) of the century to date is bottled water. Understandably, we all now believe that the taste of tap is inferior to that of bottled water. And yet have you ever paused for thought when you reach for another plastic bottle of water from the chiller? Ever wondered just how OLD that water is, how many miles in a hot cargo ship it has travelled?

Imagine a better way - the purest water possible, being served to you, still or sparkling, from your own home or boat, with no zero single-use bottles ever being needed.

Water filtration systems have evolved hugely in recent years and now remove not just particulates (including micro and nano-plastics) but also chemicals that are really not good for us. Bisphenols, phthalates, endocrine disrupting chemicals, forever chemicals like PFAs - all words that we really shouldn’t have to worry about. But I’m afraid we all need to be more conscious of the quality of our water and plastic-bottled water is well known to carry many of these chemicals.

BlueWater from Sweden is a pioneer in water filtration, often seen at big sporting events and world sailing competitions. Their systems remove 99% of all chemicals and pollutants from tap water, giving you the purest, cleanest-tasting water possible.

Ocean Talks is a face-to-face event that aims to bring together the superyacht industry and the world of marine conservation via meaningful conversation, inspirational talks and networking.

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