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Plastic waste is a boardroom issue

The global focus on single-use plastic is growing exponentially, and this is not a conversation confined to consumers and restaurant managers. Resources, and therefore waste, is a Boardroom issue. Dr Merrin Pearse, Sustainability Advisor, asks “how is your Board assessing your organisation’s role in avoiding, reducing or recovering plastic?”


Single-use plastic is as ever present in business as it is has become in the rest of modern life. You don’t need to dig too deeply into corporate life to find it, whether it’s in purchasing guidelines, manufacturing of products, storage and distribution, business administration and corporate events and gifts… the list goes on.

C-suite and Board members focus on the priority topics that matter most to the business. In the past, the focus was often on purely short-term financial results, but with a more sophisticated understanding of environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy and reporting, the short path from them to financial performance is becoming increasingly clear and a concern. Board members of publicly-listed American utility PG&E have learned all too well the importance of ESG to  longer-term financial resilience with the company recognised by some as ‘the first of many climate change bankruptcies.’ Against this backdrop, and reflecting on a more local and high profile issue, with the market becoming more sensitised to plastic usage through things like straws, Boards can expect more scrutiny of plastic issues. These plastic issues are expanding from highly visible single-use plastic items, such as cups and bags, to the managing the end of life of all plastic products even if they have been used multiple times.

At TPB we’re also seeing strategic thinking expanding to include other single-use items whether they are made of paper, metal, foil or mixed materials, as insight from operational audits brings realisation that any single-use item increases the waste management costs for the business or the end customer, as well as of course having a higher potential to end up in nature and adding to the plastic pollution. If your waste has your branding on it there is potential to create reputational risk too, with polluters being more frequently being called out by pollution audits).


What is the Board’s responsibility?

Aside from a company’s obligations such as legislative requirements, corporate governance codes and following ESG guidelines, if they are truly driving the business to be a good corporate citizen then the Board should be taking bold and innovative decisions to support better alternatives to be investigated and trialled. So how are forward-thinking Boards realising such ambitions?

1. Seizing opportunities

Leading business are setting the course for more responsible growth, by seizing opportunities to embed more plastic-sensitive choices as part of their strategy. They are setting bold goals which have the ability to influence their industry and enable the wider community to also join together in creating solutions. They are not waiting to be led by Government– the problems are real, right now and accumulating daily. There is not going to be just one solution to the range of challenges the world is facing on issues such as plastic pollution– whether that plastic pollution is in our oceans, waterways or landfills – and we will need the whole range of ideas that through partnerships will have larger impact.

The solution is not just to ban single-use plastic. Every organization needs to consider the environmental impacts of the alternatives being proposed. A detailed audit and life-cycle assessment of the both the current plastic option and the alternatives proposed needs to be done.

For example, when Cathay Pacific wanted to reduce single-use plastic items on its flights, it flew a careful route to avoid unintended consequences. Analysis undertake with TPB showed that alternatives very often weighed more, and extra weight on an aircraft would mean emitting more CO2, thus worsening its climate change impact. The airline has announced the removal of single-use plastic straws and stirrers from its offices, flights and lounges globally, and continues to work with TPB for other opportunities to rethink single-use plastic.

Another example, when Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, Limited were considering switching from plastic straws to paper straws, the luxury hotel group worked with TPB to consider the wider impact of using straws. A review of their whole drinks menu saw straws removed from all drinks where they were not essential to enjoy the drink. Now, when straws are proposed for a drink or actively requested by a guest, HSH hotels serve a paper straw alongside – but separate – to the drink (where appropriate). Local teams are also required to make sure that the paper’s provenance meets the group’s sustainable paper specification so it does not, for example, inadvertently contribute to illegal logging of rainforests.


2. Don’t work alone

Companies should look to collaborate with supply chain and other partners to design out the different problems. Examples of in Hong Kong businesses today include:

Setting new buying criteria.  Single-use staff meal boxes are common in the office and out on site, but companies are looking at how these meal boxes could be avoided by working with a catering company and a delivery company who  are prepared to manage reusable containers.

Working together. Drink Without Waste is a cross-industry working group that brings together competitors and other stakeholders to look at reducing waste from beverages consumption. Having a wide range of industry members together means they can investigate solutions for the whole system (eg manufacturers, distributors, retailers, recyclers, waste management companies and NGOs).


3: Driving innovation

Taking the opportunity to reframe an environmental challenge into a business opportunity, can diversify and add new revenue streams to the organisation. Two examples coming out of the beverage packaging sector in Hong Kong are:

New ventures A new plastic recycling plant is being built through a joint venture between ALBA, Baguio, and Swire Beverages at the EcoPark in Tuen Mun.  This will help these organisations collectively to better manage the recovery and have stronger confidence in the processing of Hong Kong’s used plastic and contribute to the supply of recycled plastic into the manufacturing process.

Both of these examples are of organisations seeing the business opportunity rather than waiting for say government facilities to be built or for systems to change. (Hong Kong is still waiting for the proposed waste charging legislation to be passed.) Such business partnerships serve as great reminder of how the entrepreneurial spirit in Hong Kong can be used as a force for good.

business partnerships serve as great reminder of how the entrepreneurial spirit in Hong Kong can be used as a force for good

The opportunities associated with the challenges to reduce dependency on single-use plastic and manage waste cleverly, are part of the dynamic ESG challenges that company directors are expected to keep on top of. As regionally and global ESG reporting develops, we might expect increased requirements on companies around issues such as plastic.

A pulp mill for recycling carton beverage containers like paper boxes used for milk or juices is being built by Secure Information Disposal Services Limited, a recycler and a waste management company. This will be the first such facility in Hong Kong, and the resulting pulp will be sold on as a raw material.

Today’s Board members and C-suite leaders have an exciting, responsible and important role, with influence that reaches well-beyond the next financial results announcement. Better understanding of the sustainability matters that should be commanding their attention is crucial (training on ESG can really help with this) and finding the trusted experts to support you on your journey is vital to that success.


TPB can help your Board and senior management recognise and plan for the ESG issues that are essential for success. Get in touch to arrange a time to find out more – whereever your business is on its sustainability journey, we’re here to help. 

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