I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.
A Senate report this week recommended a ban on single-use plastics such as takeaway food containers and plastic-lined coffee cups by 2023.
This week will see Australians take a significant step towards that plastic-free future, with major supermarkets turning their backs on throwaway plastic bags, and an outright ban on free plastic bags at shops in Queensland and Western Australia.
It is remarkable how far we have already come in the effort to reduce our plastic pollution. We are rapidly reaching the point at which the relevant question is not “which plastics can we do without?”, but “which single-use plastics do we genuinely need?”
Most of us will get along just fine without throwaway plastic in our daily lives. But there are nevertheless many legitimate applications for single-use plastics.
Take medicine, for example, where single-use plastics are a key part of infection control. Having a blood test requires gloves made from plastic, a plastic syringe, and a plastic vial, all of which are single-use to control contamination and infection. While glass is often suggested as an alternative, this introduces challenges in cleaning, transport and availability, particularly in emergency situations where resources may be limited.
Single-use plastics also play a role in scientific research. Many scientists cringe as they look at their waste bin at the end of a session in the lab. Typically, it will be filled with pipettes, gloves, vials, sample bags, and the list goes on.
These items are used for their strength and resilience, and because they prevent cross-contamination of sampling. As with medical applications, many substitute materials do not provide the protection or stability that single-use plastics do.
Single-use plastics are often used to package food and water. While this is unnecessary in most settings, certain situations do require single-use packaging to ensure food and water safety. Domestic food aid, emergency responses, and international aid efforts all require food and water that can be stored without refrigeration and distributed when and where it’s needed. Often this means packaging it in lightweight, single-use plastics.
While the proposed bans on single-use plastics should be recognised and applauded as an important step forward in the global fight to prevent plastic pollution, we should ensure that we have thought through all the scenarios where single-use plastic may be a legitimate necessity.
Consider the case of someone with a disability who can only eat with the aid of a flexible plastic straw. Without appropriate exemptions, a federal legislative ban on single-use plastic straws could prevent people in need from accessing a basic medical aid.
Mass plastic begone
There is no doubt that single-use plastics are a major source of pollution. Recent research has shown plastic pollution to be as ubiquitous in the global environment as the more familiar pollutants like lead. Plastic has been found at the deepest depths of our oceans and the greatest heights of our mountains. No country on Earth is immune to plastic pollution, from tropical islands to deserts. All of this pollution has happened in less than a century.
As a society we are realising the damage that single-use plastic is doing to the environment. That’s why a carefully legislated ban on almost all single-use plastics is a good idea. From throwaway food containers, to drinking straws, to coffee cups – we can live without almost all of it.
If you take a stroll down a busy city block today, you will see a people clutching reusable coffee cups, or eating food wrapped in brown paper, or carrying a drink bottle that they can refill at a free public water station. We as a society are changing.
We are also seeing a shift in governance and policy. Earlier this year, the European Union announced a ban on single-use plastic products with readily available alternatives. Seattle has been on a path to ban single-use plastics for many years, with the latest efforts aimed at banning plastic utensils, straws and cocktail picks. The move away from single-use plastics has even been adopted by McDonald’s, which will trial plastic-free straws later this year.
Amid these trends, we need to ensure that we have the right strategy to accommodate those who still depend on single-use plastics. This would include thinking seriously and developing single-use products that have a reduced environmental impact and can be used in these applications.
For the rest of us who need to kick our single-use plastic addiction, you can start today (if you haven’t already) by saying no to plastic straws and taking a reusable cup to your favourite coffee cart.
The implications of climate change risks for corporate stakeholders are often poorly understood. Possibly least understood within this group is the role of those with financial expertise. We investigated and have produced a working paper on factors that influence accountants’ involvement in managing climate change risk in Australia.
Companies have been under greater pressure to disclose their exposure to risks of climate change since the 2014 G20 meeting in Australia. This created the Taskforce on Climate Change-Related Financial Risk Disclosure (TCFD. Its recommended disclosures were issued in June 2017.
In a speech this month, Australian Securities and Investments Commissioner John Price reinforced these recommendations. He made clear climate risk is an ASIC priority. Directors who fail to properly consider and disclose climate risks could face lawsuits, he warned.
So where do accountants come into this?
It can be argued that those with financial expertise, such as accountants, have the tools to provide crucial information to management on potential risks embedded in climate change.
Previous research found accountants had a limited role in assessing climate change risk. However, our comparative study reveals shifts in climate management towards those with financial expertise.
A principal conclusion from our research is that, together with engineers and other technical experts on climate change, those with financial expertise are significantly more intertwined in assessing and mitigating the risk than before.
The study involved semi-structured interviews with managers directly involved in emissions management for some of the largest Australian companies. These took place before and after the 2014 repeal of the carbon tax. In 2013, we interviewed 39 managers across 18 companies. In 2016 it was 14 managers and 11 companies.
Carbon tax repealed: experts respond
The key finding from the 2013 interviews was that engineers and environmental specialists dominated emissions management. Those with financial expertise had minimal involvement. Many interviewees claimed that, because of the complexity and technicalities, only professionals with engineering or environmental science backgrounds had the relevant expertise:
Because it’s quite a technical thing … it’s not just a number. You need to understand what’s behind the number, and why it’s there.
Importantly, in that period, one financial professional leading a team in the field asserted that accountants, as risk management experts, could bring significant value to their companies:
I think that accountants have a lot of credibility … because when it comes to emissions … I think I can put forward the business case of why it’s important … I think, that means … it’s better received within the company than if I was … an engineer or an environmental scientist.
Both financial and non-financial experts shared this view. One sustainability professional explained how a limited financial understanding leads to an inability to appropriately use techniques common in finance, such as target setting and performance evaluation.
Well, I think if you had the accounting knowledge … it [the target] would be far more accurate, and probably a lot higher than what we’ve set.
With our commitment to the Paris climate agreement, one might have expected companies to more urgently reduce emissions. In general, though, the second round of interviews reveals that companies’ emissions management (and momentum towards urgent action) has significantly diminished.
Financial expertise now coming to the fore
However, the involvement of those with financial expertise in climate change risk management has increased. Many viewed this as positive and potentially useful for boardrooms.
Whether it was the carbon tax that brought finance team attention, or organisational learning, more recent interviews found evidence of greater acceptance of climate change as a financial (and other) material risk. The ASIC commissioner’s speech advocating TCFD-type disclosures suggests the issue is not merely one of eco-efficiency, but one of commercial substance of relevance to company directors.
From the interview data, one possible explanation for increased collaboration between technical and financial expertise is greater acceptance of climate change issues as material risks to companies:
Management of carbon is fundamentally a risk-management exercise … It is a material risk … if we don’t think about the long-term risks … and what are the strategies that we need to mitigate…
The best way to present … climate-related information to … management … is in the risk-management process [including] … in terms of reputational risk, commercial risk, strategic risk … it’s all risk.
Barriers to collaboration between technical and financial experts still exist. These include geographic co-location and some accountants being unable to step outside traditional roles.
With regulators’ increased interest in measurement and disclosure of climate change risk, the landscape is changing again. We anticipate better integration of the assessment and mitigation of climate change risk with strengthened expertise being brought to bear. This includes greater involvement from the technical expert on the ground through to the boardroom.
Jayanthi Kumarasiri, Lecturer in Accounting, RMIT University; Christine Jubb, Professor of Accounting, Associate Director Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology, and Keith Houghton, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University
With Coles and Woolworths supermarkets phasing out single-use plastic bags at their checkout counters, and Queensland and Western Australia bringing in bans on single-use plastic bags for all retailers from July 1, a long overdue step is being taken towards reducing Australia’s plastic waste.
However, it is only a small step, and much still needs to be done to tackle the problem.
It is therefore useful to explore what strategies might be effective in informing the public about the issue, and in changing people’s consumption and littering behaviour.
Research shows that fear or shock tactics, or strategies based on shame and guilt, are generally not effective, and can even be counterproductive. High-threat fear appeals can be effective provided that the target audience is already taking positive steps toward the desired behaviour change, or feel that they can easily do so. Crucially, this means that campaigns not only need to tell people about an issue, but also provide straightforward advice on what do to about it.
In this context, campaigns such as “Hey Tosser!”, run by the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority, are ill-conceived. The problem is that encouraging the public shaming of “tossers” creates an unhelpful stereotype that doesn’t actually exist. One study found that Australians are often unaware of their own littering, meaning the campaign might prompt people to identify themselves as “non-tossers” and therefore ignore the message.
The author and social behaviour change expert Les Robinson has suggested that rather than try to scare or shame people into changing, it is more useful to create a positive buzz around change, make new behaviours easy to adopt and sustain, and foster supportive communities to help with change.
This means that whether we want to tackle littering or reduce reliance on plastic bags, it is important to make people feel that they are part of an inclusive movement that is supported by the community and relevant to their own lives.
One example is the WA government’s “What’s your bag plan?” campaign, which urges shoppers to decide how they will carry their shopping after the demise of plastic bags, by becoming either a “bagger” (reusable bags), a “boxer” (cardboard boxes), or a “juggler” (neither!).
The good and the bad
A recent action by Greenpeace, in which overpackaged fruit and veg were labelled with a sticker saying “I’d like this product to be plastic free” and “We love plastic-free fruit and veg”, makes it easy for consumers to view those changes as positive. There is no blaming or shaming, but rather a focus on making it easier for consumers to ask supermarkets for more environmentally conscious options.
On Instagram and Twitter Greenpeace is encouraging consumers to share photos of excessive packaging, under the hashtag #RidiculousPackaging. This is a proactive way for consumers to take action, and for others to start noticing the overuse of plastic in supermarkets.
In contrast, other campaigns seek to emphasise the destructive effects of plastic waste. These can be eyecatching, but without a strong message that customers have the power to make a positive difference, they are unlikely to be effective in implementing sustained behaviour change.
The UK Marine Conservation Society’s campaign, showing a drinking straw lodged up a child’s nose (echoing a horrific viral video of a sea turtle enduring the same fate), is both shocking and thought-provoking. But with no clear, positive information showing people how they can directly address the problem through changes in their own lives, viewers may simply disengage.
Winning the war
One of the most powerful campaigns in Australia in recent times has been the ABC documentary series War On Waste. Its success can be attributed to a clever mix of shocking information tempered with entertaining and engaging storylines; a lack of blaming and shaming of individuals (although some corporations and politicians have received their share); clear and tangible solutions that viewers can implement; and a feeling of collaborative empowerment.
In combination, these elements have had a positive impact, with the sale of reusable takeaway coffee cups rising sharply after the series aired. If my experience at my local supermarket is any guide, shoppers have taken the message about recycling soft plastics firmly to heart.
Few people would argue against the reduction of plastic waste. Most people are ready and willing to change, and the agencies that are designing campaigns on the issue would do well to remember this. Positive encouragement and advice are preferable to fear, shame or shock tactics.