Plastic is an incredible material that has catalysed progress in every facet of life it has touched, but it’s clear that we have an unhealthy addiction to it which we need to conquer.
Looking around supermarkets there are countless examples where plastic is being used irresponsibly. The shrink wrapping of coconuts was the latest example to galvanize a wave of push back from consumers here in Bristol, showing that there is a real demand from consumers for an end to the linear flow of single use plastics. The UK government’s announcement of a consultation on a deposit return scheme (DRS) system earlier this year is a signal of their intent to tackle the issue at a legislative level, but for this complex issue to be cracked it will need engagement at multiple levels. Here we look at five very different approaches to tackling the plastics problem and consider what their role could be in our future plastic(less) world.
No excuse for single use
Wanting to tackle the issue of plastic waste head on, South West UK based coffee chain, Boston Tea Party took the bold step of banning single use plastic cups in June 2018. If you order a coffee to go from one of their 22 cafes you have the option of bringing your own vessel, buying a cup or renting a BTP loaner. Not only has this initiative saved over 33,000 single use coffee cups going to landfill between June and August but it has also had the unexpected effect of reducing employee turnover to an all time low. One of the key steps to success was making sure that every team member knew why the business was taking the decision to stop using single use cups and ensuring they could convey this message to their customers. As one of the first to take the plunge and stop using single use coffee cups BTP are now very much at the forefront of this movement, this has positioned them as thought leaders in the industry and puts the pressure on others to catch up.
Overcoming environmental challenges by creating new material opportunities
Algal blooms are generally perceived to be detrimental to the ecosystems they grow in and while climate change and our ever-increasing use of fertilisers means they are occurring on a more frequent basis one potential use for this fast growing nuisance is as a bioplastic feedstock. The Vivobarefoot Ultra 3 shoe is the first to use BLOOM foam derived from algal biomass. The foam is a perfect replacement for EVA and could have many applications in the footwear industry and beyond. Not only does the use of algal bioplastic reduce our reliance on petroleum it also leaves the ecosystems where the algae is harvested from cleaner and healthier. While there is still work to be done on how to recycle these foams the algae derived plastics do have the advantage over other bioplastics in that they do not compete with food production while still contributing to carbon sequestration and have smaller ecological footprints.
Rivals in business, partners for change
Starbucks and McDonalds account for the distribution of 4% of the 600 billion single use cups used annually which is why it’s so exciting to see that they have teamed up in a bid to introduce a fully recyclable, compostable cup by 2021. The coming together of these two giants of food service is particularly important because of the scale they operate at and the influence they have on suppliers that operate in the entire cup life cycle. The issue today isn’t so much that the cups aren’t recyclable it’s that the infrastructure doesn’t exist to do this profitably. If the collective influence of this new alliance could be harnessed to build a unified system that is adopted globally and produces a consistent supply of material for which there is a demand we could be a giant step closer to retiring our landfills.
Back to building blocks
The vast majority of our plastic recycling is done mechanically, the mixed waste is sorted, shredded and washed before being pelletised. This process leaves many opportunities for contamination and degradation and often means that the resulting plastic is unsuitable for food use. The emerging technology of chemical recycling might offer a commercial solution to this downcycling by breaking plastic down to their constituent monomers. These monomers can then be used in the production of new contamination free plastics with no material degradation. Small scale trials of competing technologies are currently being run by various consortiums such as DEMETO who are working with the Swiss start up gr3n on breaking down PET to ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid with the help of microwave radiation and if successful could take a big step toward reducing our reliance on virgin plastics.
Changing our ways
Making and breaking habits is hard, once we have a set routine it can feel very uncomfortable to make a change, but if we’re going to take a step toward a more circular plastic economy a key part of that is how we act as consumers. The success of the single use plastic bag charge introduced in the UK which reduced consumption by 83% is proof that a small nudge can be effective at challenging entrenched behaviours. It’s interesting to consider that a 5p plastic bag charge had such a large effect but that initiatives of a discount on your coffee if you bring your own cup has had limited success when the big chains trialled it. The University of Winchester turned this on its head by reducing the cost of all hot drinks by 25p and introducing a 25p penalty for not using your own cup. No actual change to the price of the drinks that were being offered but a change in how they were perceived, the net result? 34,000 less cups used in the first year and reusable cups now being used for around a third of hot drinks.
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