Innovation That Matters

Photo source: Huid; Blond; Plastic Energy, INEOS Olefins & Polymers Europe

How can we replace single-use plastic?

Sustainable Source

Discover the latest thinking and innovation helping us to move away from single-use packaging

How can we reduce the impact of single-use plastic? ‘We are five years on from that Blue Planet moment and we’re still discussing the issue,’ explains Paula Chin, senior policy advisor at WWF-UK.

Speaking during the workshop on Tackling single-use plastics at edie 23, Chin pointed to work by the Back to Blue initiative – a project by Economist Impact and the Nippon Foundation. This predicts that, by 2050, plastic production could reach more than 25 billion tonnes.

This glut of plastic is a grave problem, not just because of the threat to wildlife – as was so viscerally highlighted by David Attenborough’s BBC documentary – but also because of the impact of plastic production on the climate.

According to the OECD, in 2019, plastics caused 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. And, overall, plastics account for 3.4 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions over their lifecycle.

There are a range of potential solutions to the problem of single-use plastic, but each faces its own challenges. And we may not even have a plastic problem, but a deeper issue with how we use our resources. Chin cautions that we need to avoid isolated and siloed action on plastic, and Tom Domen, global head of long-term innovation at Ecover – who also spoke at edie 23 – stresses that the issue is with single use in general, not just one particular material.

So, what are the alternatives to single-use plastic, and what is the latest thinking on their potential?

It’s not all about recycling

Springwise is spotting a range of innovations that aim to increase recycling rates. Among these, advanced recycling – processes that use heat or chemicals to reprocess used plastics – is a key trend. Last year, Springwise spotted an advanced recycling trial at the INEOS Grangemouth facility in Scotland, while UK startup Greenback is creating a network of small and efficient advanced recycling reactors located close to local waste streams.

However, one of the key takeaways from the session at edie 23 was that recycling alone is not enough. Plastic production continues to grow, and recycling rates are not keeping up. The belief in the ability of recycling to solve our problems could also entrench current thinking and prevent more fundamental change.

Compostable plastic may be a red herring

One potential solution for single-use plastics is compostable plastic – materials that are designed to break down under certain conditions, whether at home or in industrial facilities. Supporters of this solution highlight that it takes less energy to manufacture compostable plastics than traditional equivalents, that compostable plastics release fewer harmful chemicals into the environment, and that the use of compostables reduces the amount of plastic sent to landfill or the incinerator.

However, not everyone is convinced, and among the sceptics is Stefanie Sahmel, head of sustainability at Abel & Cole – a company that has recently moved away from compostable plastic packaging. Speaking at edie 23, she explained how, in the UK at least, the infrastructure is not in place to support a system of compostable plastics. Abel & Cole has been supported in its decision by a growing academic understanding of compostable plastic’s limitations. This includes research from University College London, which found that compostables can contaminate other plastic recycling streams, are unregulated and poorly understood, and are not supported by the necessary infrastructure.

Sahmel highlighted how Abel & Cole has replaced its compostable plastic carrot bag with paper packaging. And Springwise has previously spotted other innovators developing paper alternatives to plastic. For example, French startup Papkot has created coated paper packaging that works like plastic but decomposes in the environment like normal paper.

Is re-use the way forward?

Another solution that is gaining momentum is reusable packaging. At edie 23, Domen highlighed Ecover’s recent success with this approach explaining that: “wherever we have refill we have grown ourselves.” This is a rebuff to critics of reusable packaging, who claim that consumers are not ready to make the change. Abel & Cole too has made progress with its Club Zero range of products delivered in refillable pots.

Springwise has spotted several other reusable packaging innovations in recent months. Online grocer Dizzie has developed a closed-loop system of refillable containers for kitchen essentials, and French startup is using reusable containers for bathroom products. Meanwhile, in the fast-food space, Swiss company reCircle has developed a system that allows customers to purchase their takeaway food in refillable containers.

Despite its promise, reusable packaging faces several hurdles. One is industry standardisation. Domen highlights how Ecover is hoping to make refill easier by pushing for a standard, cross-industry refill cartridge that would be “the coke can of this industry.” Another is regulation, with Domen telling the session at edie 23 that all of today’s policy incentives are geared towards recycling. “We’d love to see some incentives that drive refill behaviour,” he told the attendees.

Alternative materials hold promise but need scale

A longer-term solution to single-use plastic is the development of alternative materials, and seaweed has been receiving a lot of attention as a potential plastic replacement. For example, Notpla – a UK startup that last year won an Earthshot Prize – has developed solid packaging made from seaweed that is suitable for moulding. And B’ZEOS, another startup based in Norway has made edible packaging from kelp. Onions too could replace plastic, with textile designer Renuka Ramanujam developing a plastic packaging alternative made from onion skins.

Despite their long-term promise, many alternative materials remain at an early stage of development, and it remains to be seen whether they can be sufficiently scaled up to be a practical replacement for today’s plastics.

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