Demanding more sustainable businesses



Before leaving the house, my bag usually resembles a picnic basket: there’s my reusable carry bag, stainless steel water bottle, reusable coffee cup, and if I can remember, my bamboo cutlery set. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my bag has become more like a normal bag, because most of my usual sustainability kit can’t be used at the moment.

Sign reads No business on a dead planet (Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

Efforts to cut back on waste and move away from plastic have been put on hold as we collectively try to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Long-life food and non-perishable foods, cleaning wipes, face wastes, latex gloves and bottles of hand sanitiser have replaced fresh food, package-free goods and chemical-free cleaners. Add to the fact that many restaurants and cafes have for months have only been able to do take-away, plastic has been forced back into popular use.

Multiple media reports have focused on individuals and households moving away from sustainability — mostly because of understandable concerns about contamination — and yet, the conversation about the impacts of our biggest businesses and corporations hasn’t been as loud.

It’s a continuation of a narrative that places responsibility on the individual in a way that is disproportionate to their actual contributions. What about the country’s biggest polluters? Electricity, coal, natural gas retailers and waste disposal companies are the biggest sources of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Clean Energy Regulator, between 2017-2018, these were AGL Energy, Energy Australia, Stanwell Corporation, Origin Energy and CS Energy, which collectively emitted 116.1 tones of greenhouse gases in those 12 months, and in that same time, qualifying corporations contributed about 60 per cent of total Australian emissions. Compare this with the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that Australian households collectively produce. 

Professor Kathryn Williams, who is an expert in environmental psychology at the University of Melbourne, says it’s not surprising because our society puts the emphasis on change and responsibility on the individual, even when that contribution is much smaller. ‘It’s important that we work at both scales; we need to at a structural scale and individual scale, but a big system doesn’t change in society unless we — individuals acting collectively — demand that change.’

‘We need that big structural change, and we do need to have a conversation about that.’


'No one will argue that individuals and households do have a direct and important role to play in reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions. But the emphasis needs to be proportionate to the impact they have.'


Prior to the pandemic, Australia had made some decent steps forward in reducing waste and becoming more sustainable in a more macro way. In late 2018, the federal government announced it was aiming to divert 80 per cent of the country’s waste away from landfill, and a 10 per cent reduction in overall waste by 2030. The new policy also included targets of 70 per cent of all plastic packaging to be composted or recycled by 2025.

During the first six months of supermarkets banning single-use plastic bags, an estimated 1.5 billion bags were saved from going to landfill. And in January this year, a disposable coffee cup recycling scheme announced that it had diverted its 10 millionth coffee cup away from landfill.

‘We need to normalise a position of expectations from companies to put into place structural places and to be held to account and actions that force changes,’ Professor Williams says.

But as the practical aspects of the pandemic become clearer — and more visual — the emphasis has again been placed on individuals and households.

In some cases, businesses in the US have been using the pandemic as an excuse to lobby for a relaxation of the plastic bag ban, arguing that reuseable or fabric bags are ripe for bacteria and contamination.

The Australian Council of Recycling is urging households to continue their recycling efforts amid reports that the amount of rubbish generated during the lockdown has risen by more than 10 per cent and contamination of household recycling bins has reached ‘unprecedented levels’.

No one will argue that individuals and households do have a direct and important role to play in reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions. But the emphasis needs to be proportionate to the impact they have. It’s easy to point to the increase in plastic takeaway containers and coffee cups because we can see them. Only our biggest businesses can make a real and genuine difference.



Alana SchetzerAlana Schetzer is a Melboune-based journalist and academic.

Main image credit: Sign reads No business on a dead planet (Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Alana Schetzer, COVID-19, environment



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Existing comments

All good points. Psychologically, with the return to plastic takeaway cups, I feel as if I am getting slacker generally in my approach to sustainability. I agree, also, that while individuals are responsible for their own actions, we cannot take on macro, social responsibility other than to push governments and big business in the direction we want them to take.
Deborah Singerman | 19 May 2020

Qantas has a zero waste plane but it’s grounded.
Pam | 19 May 2020

Alana our local coffee shop uses coffee cups made from sugar cane waste. New batteries being developed in Qld are made from recycled cane waste and black molasses. Far more effective that Musks lithium batteries. Applicable to cars, but they can also be made from coal. The new Direct fuel cell converts any grade of coal to energy with no combustion and only a 2% CO2 emission. WE need to manufacture our own ships, subs, cars and green gassification energy projects using cotton waste and cane residue. Overseas they are already using muncipal waste as fuel to burn at high temperature to spin a turbine to make electricity. The residue biochar can be used to make roads. Why wouldnt that work here? Landfill is a complete waste. Rather than duplicate Snowy 1, why dont we use the wet season surplus floodwaters water from the Ross, the Burdekin, the Palmer to parallel the Michell Hway with a concrete channel and link to the Darling ? A distance of 2134 km. It would be far more effective than Snowy 2 and there can still be hydro turbines for generation along the channel? Create huge lakes in NSW and Vic and fill them up with diverted water. If NZ can plan 1 bn trees why couldnt we plant 5 bn trees? Open up more aquaculture projects like Tassall? We need to stop importing all our manufactured goods from China and learn to be self reliant.
Francis Armstrong | 23 May 2020


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