Neal Maxwell explains how a trip to the Arctic led him to found Changing Streams, with a mission to persuade the construction industry to end its ‘plastic pandemic’
You cannot solve the climate crisis unless you address the plastic pandemic. You also never foresee a trip to be ‘life changing’ in advance.
Before I went to the Arctic, like most of us, I had seen the TV and film version of the place, and had formed the image of a vast expanse of snow and ice, an abundance of wildlife, and very little else.
Once I got there, the reality was quite different. As one of 10 people who had the privilege of kayaking in the Arctic Ocean, I became very aware of not only my surroundings, but the part I was playing within that unique landscape. However, within the beauty of the Arctic setting, there was also the sad reality of the effects of plastic pollution.
I was accompanying great scientists and tapping into their knowledge of global warming and the impact plastic production has had on the natural world, and had first-hand experience of trying to collect the sheer amount of plastic washing out of the sea and onto the land. These two things really started the ball rolling in my journey into reassessing the role plastic played in my life, and that of the industry I had worked in for three decades.
Construction’s plastic problem
I joined the construction industry in 1986, delivering high quality commercial fit out, refurbishments and associated works within the public and private sectors. This is an industry, I was shocked to later hear, which was responsible for a quarter of the plastic consumed in the UK. An industry that generates an estimated 50,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste each year!
It is easy to understand why construction uses so much plastic, it is cheap, durable, lightweight, and it lasts. However, this same resilient material also takes up to 1000 years to decompose. Unfortunately, this means huge implications for the environment, contaminating land and seas with greenhouse gasses and fossil fuels as it breaks down.
It’s hard to ignore the facts when they are staring you in the face. I had seen the effects of plastic pollution first hand, and I had learned of the implications of plastic from experts. I saw plastic everywhere, in my home, in the workplace, in shops and also populating the sea at a larger rate than ever before. If we keep going the way we are, by 2025 the world’s oceans will contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
It was from this that Changing Streams was born, a not-for-profit community interest company looking to globally reduce the use of – and our reliance on – plastics, starting with the construction industry. Its aim is to bridge the gap between industry and academia and greatly reduce the use of plastic from the construction sector on a global scale.
The benefits of plastic-free business
As the threat of an environmental crisis becomes ever more likely, the Government has rolled out a number of initiatives to not only encourage the use of non-recyclable plastics, but to make them a less financially viable option for stakeholders in the UK. The ‘Plastics Pact’, for example, has set a target to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging, by encouraging manufacturers to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
This is achieved by higher taxes on landfill waste, and by the implementation of Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA), a scheme which lets businesses claim 100 per cent first-year allowances to invest in environmentally friendly and efficient technologies. It is a step in the right direction and makes perfect sense from a business perspective: if as a company you are getting tax relief, as well as paying less on landfill tax and spending less on handling waste (the cost of skip hires and clearing and collection soon adds up), then the idea of using single-use plastics becomes a lot less attractive.
As well as this, the Government announced its Green Industrial Revolution in November 2020, including a 10-point plan to bolster and support hundreds of thousands of highly skilled jobs within sustainability and the green sector. This initiative has been backed by £12bn of Government investment, and is also intended to produce around £36bn in private sector investment by 2030.
The role of the built environment in tackling plastic pollution
Changing Streams’ expertise within the construction industry places it in a good position to be able to help support the industry in its efforts to reduce plastic. There is an overarching ambition to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but we need to be mindful that we should not be achieving these targets by increasing the amount of plastic, as this will also have a significant environmental impact. What is needed, therefore, is for us to recognise and help establish a link between carbon pollution and plastic pollution.
The creation of a charter to bring stakeholders together offers significant benefits to Changing Streams members. Regular communication and networking to share ideas and best practice, and access to accredited training schemes and bespoke action plans, will aid in the reduction of plastic usage on an individual company level.
In order to bring together experts from across the construction, scientific and environmental communities, to successfully facilitate research that will ultimately lead to a reduction in plastics in buildings and throughout the industry’s supply chain, we need the combined support of all stakeholders.
The mission of Changing Streams advocates for a number of long-term initiatives, including ending the use of plastic wrapping for building materials and the creation of a scientific-based accreditations system to access plastic content in products. However, this is only achievable if the entire industry commits to engaging and supporting it.
We have more resources at our disposal than ever before, and yet we are still not moving quickly enough. In every other area the construction industry has been solutions-focused – once we were aware of the damage asbestos does to our lungs we reframed our opinion on it – so why can’t we do the same for the plastic pandemic?
For more information about membership, or other ways you can support Changing Streams, visit www.changingstreams.org
Neal Maxwell is the founder of Changing Streams