Britain’s small and medium-sized (SME) businesses are failing to make progress in reducing their single-use plastic footprints, despite a sustained campaign encouraging change, according to a new YouGov survey.
The survey of more than 1,000 senior decision makers in SME businesses was commissioned by Keep Britain Tidy and BRITA UK. It found that despite the ongoing focus on the environmental damage caused by single-use plastic litter and calls for businesses to do more, only half (52%) say their business is doing all it can to reduce its single-use plastic waste.
43% said their business has not carried out any measures to reduce single-use plastic waste in the past year.
The figures highlight what Keep Britain Tidy is calling “low levels of action”, with only 15% of senior decision makers saying their organisation has taken steps to replace any single-use plastic in their supply chains in the past 12 months.
Only 23% believe that their business is responsible for encouraging its customers to reduce consumption of single-use plastics, while only a fifth (22%) think their business has a duty to be a leader in their sector on this issue.
This research makes for shocking reading but it is not simply about knocking businesses for inaction – it is about understanding the barriers they face and looking to work with them to offer the expertise, support and guidance that will help them transform for good.
Despite the fact that 70% of senior decision makers in SMEs acknowledge that staff want to reduce their single-use plastic footprint, and half think their customers want this, internal and external action has been “sluggish”.
Allison Ogden-Newton, Keep Britain Tidy Chief Executive, said: “This research makes for shocking reading but it is not simply about knocking businesses for inaction – it is about understanding the barriers they face and looking to work with them to offer the expertise, support and guidance that will help them transform for good.
“Keep Britain Tidy is a charity that is focused on developing solutions and, through these solutions, helping businesses tackle the problems of waste, including single-use plastic.
“The public are willing to get out there and do something to clean up the plastic that they see around them – more than half a million volunteers gave their time during the Great British Spring Clean to do just that – and businesses must support the public by playing their part.
“There are some 5.7 million small and medium-sized businesses in the UK, accounting for 99% of all businesses – so we need them to take action alongside the household names.”
Just over a third (37%) point to lack of staff engagement as a challenge in reducing use of single-use plastics, yet within their businesses, only 14% have installed or increased the availability of filtered drinking water taps or fountains since last summer.
Only one in five (20%) have replaced some or all of the single-use plastics staff use with reusable or non-plastic alternatives in the last 12 months.
Less than a third (30%) have taken steps to encourage staff to use reusable alternatives such as bottles or cutlery in the past year.
When it comes to their supply chains, just 6% of businesses have audited how they use single-use plastics, while only 8% have selected new suppliers based on their environmental credentials in this respect.
With many of the decision makers operating in sectors where they have a direct consumer relationship, including retail, hospitality and transport, it is notable that just 4% of all SMEs have used incentives such as purchase discounts to encourage customers to change their behaviour around single-use plastics – including just 8% of those working in hospitality and leisure.
Only 7% say their SME has run education or awareness-raising initiatives, for example communications campaigns, aimed at customers;
Less than one in five (18%) have replaced some of the single-use plastics that customers use with more environmentally friendly alternatives such as reusable coffee cups (including just 29% of retail, and hospitality and leisure businesses).
SMEs “failing to respond”
The figures, published ahead of a wider study by Keep Britain Tidy’s (KBT) Centre for Social Innovation and BRITA UK, The Role of Businesses in Reducing Single-Use Plastics, suggests businesses are “failing to respond to public pressure”, KBT says.
While the study will include interviews with major companies such as Greggs and British Telecoms that suggest that larger businesses recognise the responsibility they have as a business and are taking action to reduce their use of single-use plastic ahead of legislation, the country’s 5.7 million small and medium-sized businesses – accounting for 99% of all private businesses in Britain – “have not kept up”, it says
The report will also include recommendations based on the successful initiatives introduced by larger businesses to help others make changes to reduce single-use plastic within their own organisations.
It comes despite the fact that 69% of SME senior decision makers agree that preventing single-use plastic waste is important to their business (a figure that falls to just 57% for finance and accounting businesses).
Even in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion protests and the Government’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, this issue is perceived to be more important than tackling climate change (63%).
Meanwhile, nearly half (48%) say that food waste generated by their business, its staff and its customers is not important to their business.
Making the first move
The research suggests that one of the key obstacles to businesses taking action is an unwillingness to take a leadership role and be a first mover in a sector. KBT says this suggests there is a driving role for trade bodies.
A third of senior decision makers in SME businesses (33%) say their business is challenged in its reduction of single-use plastic by the fear that it could potentially be left at a competitive disadvantage, while half (47%) say their business is not motivated at all by the opportunity to implement change ahead of others and be a leader in single-use plastic waste prevention in their sector.
The data also suggests the need for innovation and education so businesses fully understand the alternatives available to them in their supply chains and feel confident to make changes, KBT says.
Real change will only be achieved if the business community comes together to find solutions to the challenges posed by single-use plastic
For example, two thirds (65%) say a challenge is finding less environmentally impactful alternatives that still do the same job, while 56% worry about the high cost of alternatives.
In light of the findings, Keep Britain Tidy and BRITA UK are calling on businesses to:
- Take much greater responsibility and leadership in eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics
- Begin to pilot and independently monitor initiatives to reduce unnecessary plastics and encourage greater recycling, both in retail and the workplace, with a view to scaling these across their organisation, as well as making recommendations for other businesses looking to replicate these changes
- Ensure all ‘quick wins’ in terms of unnecessary single-use plastics, where they can be eliminated, are implemented. Examples include offering tap water to customers and incentivising the use of reusable coffee cups; replacing plastic milk bottles with a glass bottle milk delivery service; making use of refill schemes for cleaning products; eliminating single-use plastic cutlery and replacing with reusable alternatives; and removing plastic straws and all single-use carrier bags, encouraging customers to bring their own bags
- In time, look to make more innovative and systematic changes to further reduce their use of single-use plastics. Businesses should show leadership in their sector and openly share outcomes, learnings and recommendations. Examples include incentivising the use of reusable products or the purchase of packaging-free items (for example, by offering a discount on purchase or selling them at a lower price than packaged items); investing in research and innovation for the development of new plastic-free solutions; and trialling retail refill schemes for customers to return empty containers.
Sarah Taylor, Managing Director of BRITA UK, said: “The last few years have seen a sea change in our awareness of the impact of single-use plastic on the marine and wider environment.
“It’s been exciting to see so many household name businesses take big steps to reduce their single-use plastic footprint, from providing staff with reusable alternatives, such as reusable water bottles and coffee cups, to trialling refill schemes for customers in stores.
“As a business this is something BRITA has been proud to be a part of. But it’s clear that smaller organisations have not been as confident at making changes, despite what their customers and staff are saying.
“Real change will only be achieved if the business community comes together to find solutions to the challenges posed by single-use plastic.”