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Fighting plastic pollution, one bottle at a time

A smartphone app used to find free water refills on the go has now been downloaded over 100,000 times. Robeco | 22.05.2019 11:18 Uhr
Carola van Lamoen, Head of Active Ownership, Robeco / © Robeco
Carola van Lamoen, Head of Active Ownership, Robeco / © Robeco
Under the Refill scheme, thirsty Britons can replenish their bottles with tap water provided free at 18,000 high street shops, cafes or businesses listed on the app, rather than buying and then discarding plastic bottles. The initiative by City to Sea – a UK not-for-profit organization committed to fighting plastic pollution – is supported by the UK water industry. Robeco signed a sponsorship partnership with City to Sea in October 2018 because, as pioneers of sustainability investing, we too are dedicated to protecting the environment. Cutting plastic pollution by talking directly with producers to find solutions to the problem is one of Robeco’s four engagement objectives for 2019.

One million plastic bottles are bought globally every minute, of which nine out of ten are single use. Many end up in the ocean, with 8 million metric tons of plastic dumped at sea each year. Aside from the sheer waste, it presents a major threat to marine life, killing millions of sea creatures every year. This now presents a threat to human health as well, as plastic is ingested by fish and enters the food chain.

Scary statistics

Research by Refill shows that the average person in the UK will use 150 plastic water bottles every year, of which half are not recycled. More than 15 million are littered, landfilled or incinerated every day, producing 233,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year. If just one in ten people refilled once a week, it would mean 340 million less plastic bottles a year in circulation.

“We’ve increased our number of app users past 100,000, and have also increased the retention of app users, so more people are coming back to use it, which is great,” says Natalie Fee, founder of City to Sea. “That is spread over 160 local schemes managed by over 250 volunteers who run Refill in their communities. And we’re now expanding into Europe, working with Refill in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Japan and Greece.”

“Robeco has helped us to put more funding in the app to help with the roll-out of Refill London, and it’s a win-win, because Robeco can then use the Refill brand at industry events to engage with this issue and give people a tangible experience of stopping plastic pollution.”

The power of engagement

Fee says she decided to work with Robeco after realizing that engaging with investee companies to solve environmental, social or governance (ESG) problems can be as, if not more effective, as boycotting them through exclusions. It follows recent success with a ground-breaking agreement to set short-term carbon footprint targets linked to executive pay at Royal Dutch Shell.

“I’m really excited about Robeco engaging on plastic for the next three years,” she says. “It helps me learn and get a different perspective, and feel more optimistic about the change coming from within the corporations, as the plastic polluters have more pressure from their shareholders.”

“Robeco invests in the companies we campaign against, so initially it didn’t seem like a resonant partnership. But after a lot of reading, meetings and due diligence, I learnt about the power that Robeco can have through active engagement. What turned it for me was seeing the changes that Robeco has brought about at Shell.”

Working within the system

“It’s a way of working within the system. It may still mean increased returns for the investors, but it can certainly speed up the changes we so desperately need to see when it comes to companies taking responsibility for their emissions and polluting practices.” Robeco’s three-year engagement will focus on food and beverage producers that make extensive use of plastic bottles and food trays for packaging, along with the plastics manufacturers themselves. As part of this program, Robeco has become a signatory to the Plastic Solutions Investor Alliance, an international coalition of investors that engages with publicly traded consumer goods companies on the threat posed by plastic waste and pollution. It also supports the Ellen MacArthur initiative, a campaign started by the former round-the-world yachtswoman to move to a recycling-based, circular economy.

“With our engagement, we aim to stimulate the transition to recyclable, reusable and/or compostable packaging,” says Carola van Lamoen, Head of Active Ownership at Robeco. “We have full support from both our clients and our own investment teams for our engagement program on single-use plastic. We see a growing awareness among companies, investors and other stakeholders that single use plastic is a material topic that needs to be addressed. We collaborate with other investors in our dialogues with companies; our partnership with City to Sea further strengthens our engagement approach.”

Making a difference

It is starting to make a difference at a corporate level. “Attending the Plastic Recycling Show Europe in Amsterdam in April 2019 showed us that many industry players are now setting targets to increase use of recycled plastic in their products to support a transition to a circular economy for plastics,” says Peter van der Werf, Senior Engagement Specialist at Robeco.

“We encouraged petrochemical companies that produce virgin plastic material to diversify by investing in recycling capacity. In addition, we asked beverage companies to support deposit return schemes globally to increase their ability to source recycled PET for their bottles”

Carola van Lamoen, Head of Active Ownership & Peter van der Werf, Engagement Specialist, Robeco

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