At PwC, we’ve taken several steps over the past twelve years to reduce the environmental impacts associated with plastic used in our business. First, we manage our plastic waste responsibly - separating and recycling it, wherever local facilities permit, as part of our Going Circular programme and in line with our plastics policy. We switched to compostable cups and food packaging, as an interim solution, which helped to eliminate an estimated 73 tonnes of plastic. And we provide filtered drinking water taps in our offices, to reduce the need for plastic bottles in our in-house restaurants, cafes and vending machines.
But we also know that ‘on-the-go’ eating and drinking is now pervasive in our society, and that we all benefit from being well-hydrated through the day. That’s why more than 90% of the plastic that ends up in our bins is single-use food and drinks packaging that people bring into the office from outside shops.
With plastic pollution in our oceans reaching a tipping point, not to mention the embedded carbon and water footprint of making plastic bottles, we wanted to see if we could reduce the amount of single-use plastic bottles bought by individuals working in our firm, and decided to run a campaign to find out.
In May 2018, we offered a reusable water bottle to employees willing to share their experience of trying to change their behaviours. Largely, we were seeking to address bottled drinks bought outside PwC and, since our aim was to understand the environmental benefits to society, we measured bottles purchased at any time of the day, not just in working hours.
An extremely popular campaign, almost 600 people signed up to take part in just the first few days and agreed to give us data each working day over a five-week period in May 2018 – one week to establish a baseline, and four to test whether consumption patterns changed and whether they faded over time.
During the baseline period, a simple survey was issued at about 5pm each day, gathering information about how many plastic bottles – containing any type of drink and of three different sizes – people had purchased in the previous 24 hours. This was to assess what level of plastic reduction the switch might achieve. We also asked how many of the compostable cups which we provide for hot and cold drinks in our offices they used, since a reduction in these would counter-balance the cost of the bottles.
A metal GiveMeTap water bottle was then provided to each participant, delivered through our internal mail to their ‘home’ office, and we continued to gather the same data.
An additional pre- and post-pilot survey assessed people’s experience of the trial – what aspects were challenging, which sustainability issues they cared about and whether they drank more water as a result of it, knowing that hydration is a foundation for good health and well-being. A total of more than 350 people completed the surveys.
The results were surprising, and compelling. Much has been written about the challenges associated with moving to pro-environmental behaviours yet after a month, our participants had reduced the amount of plastic purchased by 58%, from just under 9g per person per day to c. 3.75 grams. There was no visible ‘fade’ and the reduction stayed more or less constant from week to week. We estimate that, scaled to our total workforce of around 19,200 people, this programme could eliminate more than 23 tonnes of plastic each year.
We also received really positive feedback from our people about this campaign. 94% told us they enjoyed the experience and many echoed the sentiment of one employee who simply said: “It's brilliant, let’s get everyone aware and involved!”
63% of participants told us they were drinking more water as a result of having the bottle, benefiting individuals and our business alike, since hydration supports mental focus and productivity, as well as overall well-being.
In fact, it seems that reusable water bottles appeal on many fronts: our survey data showed that health is, as you might expect, an area of high interest for many, but ocean pollution, recycling and climate change also featured strongly as concerns our people are keen to address.
Interestingly, participants also used fewer compostable cups, which dropped 42% during the trial, equating to c.115 cups per person per year, a positive cost reduction which offers a strong financial return to complement the environmental and social value generated.
Finally, GiveMeTap, the social enterprise we bought our metal bottles from, supplied clean water to one person in Ghana for five years with each bottle purchased, which means that our campaign also provided c.600 people in African communities with safe, clean water.
Since completing the trial, having successfully demonstrated that our people are very supportive of reusable options, we’ve taken some further steps to help reduce plastic pollution. We’ve offered reusable water bottles to new employees to help them go plastic-free, as well as now switching from compostable cups to glasses and ceramic mugs throughout our offices.
Encouraging sustainable lifestyles is an important part of our responsible business programme and delivers on key principles in our plastics policy. But our 'Give me tap' trial has shown that it’s also something that is highly appreciated by our people, too.
Chief Sustainability Officer, PwC United Kingdom