Today, environmentally conscious consumers are increasingly demanding less plastic and a more transparent supply chain. With China no longer allowing the import of recycling waste from other countries[1] and increased sanctions on certain plastic items, both individuals and companies are under pressure to think about when and how single-use plastics are used in their day-to-day lives.

So, what can organisations do to meet these pressures? The key to positive change is to first identify where we currently use plastic, then look to see if we can change it / re-use it / or do without it completely.

It must be highlighted that all actions come with their own environmental impact, which cannot not be overlooked.

Change it

Paper - reimagined

The first change which can be made is to cut down on single-use plastic is to switch to a traditional recyclable material, such as paper. Finding alternative packaging is easier now than ever, with many eco-friendly packaging specialists available. For example, EasyPack are a UK-based company who, for over 25 years, has specialised in producing paper packaging which is completely recycled, recyclable, and biodegradable. Large corporations are increasingly focusing on sustainability and are making steps towards reducing their single-use plastic contribution. Amazon, for example, is switching from traditional bubble-wrap to paper-based void-fill to protect their products during transit.

The new materials on the block

In addition to traditional recyclable material, innovative, cutting-edge new materials are being developed all the time which offer a biodegradable option to single-use plastics. RISE, a packaging start-up, has developed a fully compostable, unfolding bowl made from cellulose which is perfect for instant-food packaging[2]. An innovative group of Pratt Institute students have successfully produced a bowl made from the fibres from mushrooms, which offers a fast-growing, quickly composting alternative to traditional plastics[3]. To protect products during transit, TemperPack has designed a hardened foam packaging filler which reportedly use only 10% of the amount of greenhouse gases to produce, compared to their polystyrene peanut counterpart.

Adapt to survive

One advantage of plastic over other materials is that its transparency allows for more inviting packaging, which is difficult to replicate. However, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University have engineered a transparent plastic substitute known as Shrilk[4], made from a type of shrimp shell and silk protein from insects. The new material is similar to plastic but will require changes to machinery designed to process plastic and so is currently not widely used. In a move to re-think the traditional plastic carrier bag, Co-Op introduced a new compostable alternative in 2018 which has all the functionality of the much-loved UK carrier bag and structural advantages over the brown paper bag widely used in the United States.  

Re-use it

What goes around comes around

Although these up-and-coming alternatives are intriguing, sometimes plastic really is the best material for the job. If kept within the supply chain, plastic has a minimal impact on the environment. Increasingly, cutting-edge businesses and individuals are committing to creating a circular economy, whereby all single-use plastic is phased out by adapting and re-thinking current processes.

The prospect of a circular economy is fast becoming the only viable option for the future. Future-conscious foundations such as the Ellen McArthur Foundation has created awards to encourage circular alternatives to current processes. Recent winner MIWA is a Czech company who collect and clean plastic containers then re-distribute them back to suppliers, a previously absent link which removes the reliance on single-use food packaging. Many large companies, such as Dell and Danone, are planning for this circular future by committing to targets to reuse their own packaging and create a zero-waste packaging process.

Do without it

Rethink, Redesign, Reimagine

Some companies have taken their commitment to sustainability one step further and asked themselves: why not do away with packaging all together? Laterally thinking companies are now looking to see where they can remove single-use plastic and solve packaging challenges through re-designing, or by engaging consumers to do the legwork for them.

Supermarkets are moving towards loose produce over packaging-rich products. Waitrose introduced their ‘Unpacked’ initiative last year, encouraging customers to bring their own containers to fill with Waitrose’s loose fresh produce. Morrisons now reportedly have over 100 varieties of fruit and vegetables available to reduce their flexible plastic packaging.

Many cafes and bars have made the switch to paper straws, after reports on the damage to marine wildlife plastic straws were causing, however Starbucks has removed the need for a separate entity altogether by designing a drinking spout on their coffee lids. In the cosmetics industry, Lush has made waves by producing solid shampoo bars sold simply as they come, completely negating the need for any single-use plastic packaging. Packaging design company MonoSol has developed a version of the dissolving covering used currently for laundry tablets which is safe to use with food. This new technology is perfect for foodstuffs which require hot water, as the packaging itself will simply dissolve into the product. By focussing on re-designing and re-thinking their current packaging, these pioneering brands have set a precedent for innovative solutions to our global environmental crisis.

Is plastic always bad?

In our current society, it is sometimes hard to remember, or advocate, that plastic can be an incredibly useful material. Plastic is durable, sterile, versatile, and malleable - making it the ideal material to use in many situations. When managed correctly, plastic can have a negligible impact on the environment, sometimes even compared to materials traditionally viewed as environmentally friendly. However, the emphasis here must be on management. Keeping plastic within the supply economy and away from the natural environment is paramount to reduce our already drastically negative affect on the planet. With the current advances in technology, we can use new techniques such as materials science or analytical software, to identify how and where single use plastics are used or processed and how viable available alternatives may be. It is now more important than ever that both individuals and businesses do their part to cut down on single-use plastics.