Is Plastic 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 fish, birds and mammals in our seas 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 in our 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.

In response, some retailers such as Iceland in the UK, have announced it will end the use of plastics for all of its own-brand products by 2023. In the Netherlands, the Ekoplaza supermarket has introduced plastic free aisles. Nevertheless, a headlong rush to eliminate plastic packaging is neither practical nor sensible for everything. The UK government environmental think tank, Green Alliance acknowledges that plastics play an important role in preserving foods and other perishable produce and reducing food waste – a major source of greenhouse gases.

At KD, we’ve considered how businesses could respond to this growing pressure to improve sustainability, before eliminating plastic from supply chains.

Is Plastic the Problem?

Material Choice

Consider whether to introduce new materials into products or packaging, but beware of ‘moving’ the problem around. For example, Lego’s new 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.

Sustainable Behaviour Change

It’s vital to 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

It is worth considering new systems such as a keeper - refill model. 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 a reusable coffee cups, with Pret a Manger recently doubling the reduction from 25 to 50 pence. Refill water fountains and schemes in cafes are growing significantly with free water to anyone with a container, reducing the need to buy bottled water. A Bristol based tap water scheme, Refill, has grown nationwide with over 5,700 stations in the UK. Each of the refill points can be conveniently located via your smartphone.

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 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.

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.

So, is plastic 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.

If you have a sustainability challenge and want to think about this in new ways, get in touch with [email protected]

Kelly Dawson