Kelly Dawson Head of Insights and Innovation

Is plastic really the problem?

Plastics can reasonably claim to be one of the most significant materials of the last 100 years. Plastics surround us in our daily lives, in the form of durable products, toys, clothing, and, most ubiquitously, packaging. However, we’re falling out of love with this most versatile of materials.

Almost every day in the UK there is a news headline highlighting the impact that plastic packaging waste is having on our planet. We are seeing the opening skirmishes in a full-scale war on single use plastics.

Some are attributing this drive for change to the BBC wildlife series, Blue Planet II, which brought us face-to-face with the impact that discarded plastics are having on marine life and on our shorelines. It has since been a topic of both conversation and action for consumers, corporations and governments worldwide.

So why has this become such an urgent problem?

One key reason is that we’ve become a convenience driven culture, where on-the-go consumption has increased significantly. We’ve become accustomed to supermarkets delivering us fresh food as we expect it, which calls on more plastic use than we’d like.

Recently, our efforts in recycling have been challenged, with a ban by China on imported plastic waste. There is a packaging pile up, so alternatives to mass recycling have become imperative for governments and industry.

Nevertheless, a headlong rush to eliminate plastic packaging is neither practical nor sensible for everything. At KD, we’ve considered how businesses could respond to this growing pressure to improve sustainability, before eliminating plastic completely from supply chains.

Sustainable Behaviour Change: Consider how you might encourage or incentivise consumers to change their behaviour; closing the loop and reducing the amount of plastic being used or avoiding or reducing the need to even recycle.

1: Reuse

New keeper – refill systems could dramatically reduce the volume in everyday plastic. Increasingly the beverage and household care categories are offering concentrate alternatives, which creates an ideal opportunity to link this to such a model. Take for example ‘You – Naturally Powerful’, who offer a mini concentrate pod of cleaning fluid that is diluted with water in a spray bottle to retain and reuse. It would be challenging to land without plastic, but it uses significantly less over the product lifetime.

Coffee shops are increasingly incentivising the use of reusable coffee cups. In January, Pret A Manger doubled the incentive from 25 to 50 pence. More than 85,000 drinks are now served in reusable cups every week, with an estimated four million cups avoiding landfill this year.

2: Repurpose

Breathing a second life into empty packaging could reduce the rapid rate in which we discard plastic. Extending use from minutes to months could create a dramatic improvement. Perhaps we might take influence from other nations, where there is a thrifty attitude towards materials, such as in Asia. Plastic containers are highly valued in households, where for example a large water bottle might become repurposed into a cleaning vessel. Think through how adding second life value to packaging might enhance your product, as well as reducing waste. At KD we partnered with South Korean food giant Chung Jung One, to design ways that new life could be introduced into their packaging range once the food product had finished. This example here encourages consumers to repurpose empty tubs into herb containers.

Grow Tub

3: Recycle

Consistency of material types helps consolidate circular recycling chains. Unique plastic types may provide benefits, but may make recycling less feasible, or contaminate established recycling streams. Seek to ensure that your packaging is fully recyclable and consider how to encourage consumers to actively recycle. KD designed the Coca-Cola ‘Twist’ PET water bottle range to communicate to consumers the need to ‘twist’ and consequently recycle, using ultra-lightweight qualities to an advantage and taking up less space in recycling bins.

4: Alternative Material

Many businesses are considering whether to introduce new materials into products or packaging. But beware, this may ‘move’ the problem around. Lego’s initiative to use a bioplastic made from sugarcane eliminates the needs for an oil-based plastic, yet the water and energy and agriculture required to supply a large volume of material could create a large impact on the planet if widely applied.

LUSH have long been pioneers of packaging -free products and recently opened their first packaging-free ‘Naked’ store in Milan. This coincides with a new product launch of Atmosphere Shower Gel Pods that are contained using seaweed, avoiding the need to use plastic and instead using a recycled carton box. However, be mindful that this requires a change in consumer behaviour as they now need to re-think how they will store this product when showering…no one wants soggy cardboard floating around the shower!


So, is plastic really the problem?

With a pull from consumers to reduce their consumption and use of plastic, we are set to see a new wave of innovation, enabling businesses to do the right thing. We must acknowledge that there is a beauty and benefit to plastic, with its durability and longevity being beneficial in many instances; conversely, therein lies the challenge if it reaches the oceans or landfill.

At KD we are looking at new ways of connecting markets, consumers and resources. With so many businesses operating on a linear model, the challenge ahead will be for innovation to be focusing on product and system design, in the drive towards closing the loop.

Now more than ever, it is time to think more creatively and innovatively on how we can make the changes that are needed.

Find out more?

If you have a sustainability challenge and want to think about this in new ways, get in touch with Kelly Dawson, our Head of Insight & Innovation