Can brands go plastic free?
Companies can get close to eliminating plastic from packaging, but compromise – such as shorter shelf life – has to be made to get there
One thing is clear: consumers have got the message that plastic pollution is a major environmental issue – and brands and retailers have been scrambling to keep up. And while there is significant focus on pushing hard for better recycling and reuse of plastics, are there viable options for companies who want to go cold turkey and simply cut plastic altogether? After all, that’s what consumers seem to want.
Hundreds of companies have promised to cut back their use of plastics, particularly single-use products. High street restaurants and fast food chains have stopped giving out plastic straws. And many supermarkets have pledged to trial alternative packaging materials and implement better waste disposal infrastructure to make sure what plastic they do use is kept out of the environment.
But this flurry of activity is throwing up some fresh problems – particularly around effective replacement options. The use of plastic is ubiquitous for good reason.
The issue of food waste is a large part of this debate; plastic is of course a key component in reducing wastage by keeping goods fresh for longer between farm, factory, store and home. According to the Cucumber Growers’ Association, more than 500 tonnes of plastic are used to wrap UK cucumbers every year. But that plastic extends their shelf life from five days to 15.
Globally, 1.6bn tonnes of food goes to waste every year – a third of all food produced. By 2030, that figure will hit 2.1bn tonnes, worth some $1.5tn dollars, according to Boston Consulting Group estimates. As agriculture is responsible for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, cutting waste is also a key component in the climate change debate.
And food waste is something Ocado, the UK online food retailer, feels most concerned about. As a founding member of the UK Plastics Pact, it has committed to ensure all own-label product packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025 – eliminating any “problematic or unnecessary” single-use packaging items from its range. The recycled content of its product packaging will average 30%.
But eradicating plastic entirely is not a black-and-white issue, says Suzanne Westlake, Ocado’s head of corporate responsibility. She argues that food waste and the benefits of plastic “absolutely need to be considered in the same breath as plastic and pollution, because the environmental impact of food waste is vast, and the two are intrinsically linked”.
Using alternative materials that do a similar job to plastic is proving tricky – not least because it represents a U-turn in product development. The packaging industry has been optimising plastic for decades, trying to get the right formula to protect and keep food fresher for longer.
There is a product cost issue too, at least initially. Ian Schofield, head of packaging at UK retailer Iceland says that the materials available that have no plastic in them are more expensive – costing typically up to three times more. Attracting a lot of publicity in the process, Iceland committed in early 2018 to eliminate plastic packaging from its own brand goods by 2023. And despite the increased costs, the chain does not want to hit customers’ pockets. “We’re doing everything we can to make this cost neutral,” Schofield says.
He does recognise there are competing issues to balance when developing alternative packaging products. “Moving out of plastic is the right thing to do. But there have to be some compromises, including shelf life.” Finding alternatives to the thousands of tonnes of plastic packaging Iceland uses every year is, not surprisingly, a real challenge, and the retailer is working to find new packaging materials, including from corn and potato starches.
A frustration across the industry is a lack of consensus on what happens post use – which affects product design – whether better recycling rates, product re-use or development of fully compostable natural fibres. And a scaled-up switch out of plastic to wood pulp or other bio-based materials may have other negative impacts too, not least potential deforestation risks.
Toy giant Lego’s drive to find alternative materials has seen it pilot bricks made with plastic sourced from sugarcane, a commodity frequently linked with forest clearance. As Green Alliance points out, “there’s clearly nowhere near enough sugarcane that can be sustainably sourced if other companies want to follow suit”.
But, going plastic free can be possible. Surfdome, an online distribution business making 2.5m deliveries of surfing and outdoor apparel to customers each year, is now 95% plastic free in its own packaging by weight, using biodegradable cardboard from sustainable sources. While there is a cost – a 110% premium that Surfdome has to pay for the cardboard packaging – for the company’s engaged customer base, ‘no plastic packaging’ is a real positive selling point, and the overall strategy is now saving the company money.
Adam Hall, Surfdome’s head of sustainability, says that the company’s priority has now shifted from an internal focus on switching to wood pulp packaging to working with their supplier brands on plastics. Surfdome has introduced a traffic light system to classify packaging that is acceptable or not for deliveries from suppliers. “And we’ve been rocked back on our heels at how positive the response has been,” Hall says, adding that his suppliers have been very keen to work to cut plastic out of packaging.
Clearly companies have many options to consider carefully – if eradicating plastic is their goal. There are trade-offs between food waste and packaging, and environmental impacts of alternatives. And innovation is required, but it can all take time to find the right balance.
All the while, though, pressure from consumers and campaigners to do something at scale continues to grow.
To continue the debate on what business should do to cut plastic pollution, join Mars, Ecover, Interface, Greenpeace, Surfdome, Zoological Society of London, the Body Shop and many more business leaders in Amsterdam 16th-17th October for Innovation Forum’s conference on how business can tackle plastic pollution. Full details here.
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