We need to reconfigure plastic usage with ingenuity
Conscious consumers and governments are sending a consistent and resounding message to businesses: ditch plastic. Misuse of plastic has created a global emergency, with more than 400 million tonnes of waste every year.
While interest in alternatives has never been higher for businesses, finding an adequate substitute feels like a mountain to climb. Should companies keep using plastics? What plastics can be recycled or reused? How should consumers dispose of plastics?
Rather than letting others take the risk or wait until new solutions are more established, action is needed now. However, reducing plastic waste requires thoughtful yet bold steps. Where to start?
Making Sense of a Complex World
While plastic is made out to be the scourge of the environment and a blight on our shelves, the truth is there are plenty of applications where plastic is the right (or only) choice.
In many scenarios where plastic packaging is used multiple times, such as in secondary or tertiary packaging, plastic can provide a lower impact material if it is recycled at end of life.
Rather than taking the blanket stance of fully eradicating plastic, businesses need to first audit their use of plastics, weighing existing alternatives for replacement, and analysing how these materials can be recycled, reused, and repurposed since right now only 9% of plastic waste worldwide is being recycled.
McDonald’s has taken this approach. Recognising that for now eliminating plastic completely is not possible, the company is focused on reducing plastic use. Of its packaging for guests, 80% is made of fibre sources, with the remaining 20% of plastic. In a quarter of its restaurants McDonald’s is also giving guests the opportunity to recycle packaging directly on site.
Tap into the power of human ingenuity
In addition to arming your business with a full understanding of plastic usage and waste strategies, another part of reducing reliance on plastic lies in human ingenuity.
While investigating various plastic alternative options used in your industry is teh first step, it should not be the only step. Businesses looking to push boundaries should look for solutions and inspiration outside their own industry through technology scouting to identify promising ideas. A range of innovative approaches are already emerging.
For example, in terms of substitute materials for plastic the London-based start-up Notpla is using material made from seaweed to develop an alternative to plastic bottles.
In terms of reducing waste, Biotic is reinventing plastic with a scalable, fully bio-based and fully biodegradable alternative material. This allows consumers to throw product packaging in the bin and for the packaging to decompose, eliminating the need for recycling.
Finally, Newlight Technologies, a California-based company, is taking it a step further by developing AirCarbon, a carbon-negative product that uses microorganisms from the ocean to turn methane and carbon dioxide into a polymer with the goal of replacing plastic in everyday items such as drinking straws and cutlery.
And in cases where alternatives to plastics are not viable, there are plenty of start-ups working to develop a circular economy for tough-to-recycle plastics. For example, UK-based Recycling Technologies uses chemical recycling to turn plastic waste back into monomers and feedstock for new polymers.
The plastics emergency is so urgent that our response should be revolutionary, not evolutionary. While businesses need time to evaluate their position and make pragmatic decisions, they should also recognise that they can affect change far faster than they imagine.
The pandemic response proves the point in a multitude of ways. When the coronavirus struck, effective vaccines were developed in less than a year. We need to apply the same sort of speed to finding alternative solutions to the plastic waste problems but be mindful of our impacts.
For example, we should look for funding from governments to kickstart business journeys. Many governments are actively looking to find ways to develop new innovations by funding new research and this area is a hot topic right now.
Many of these funds also require collaboration between companies and academia so a business can widen its network at the same time. In May 2022, the U.S. the Department of Energy announced a commitment of up to $14.5 million for research and development to combat plastics waste and pollution.
In addition, to build innovation momentum, businesses should focus on easier solutions such as swapping out materials for recyclable alternatives. By tracking successes and having a win under their belt, they will give consumers the indication they are on the right track.
And finally, it is highly unlikely one solution will solve all the problems. This means a business’s supply chain will get more complex, but as the pandemic showed, humans can solve complex problems in extraordinary circumstances by working towards a common goal.
The impacts of discarded plastic are becoming increasingly evident. As consumers continue to put pressure on businesses and government to act, brands must accelerate new packaging solutions, enable customers to make positive purchasing choices and become drivers of change.
Stuart Gilby is a sustainability expert at PA Consulting
The business case for sustainability has never been stronger – it is a massive commercial, purpose-led opportunity