Plastic not so fantastic

Holistic approaches to removing single use plastics

As we all know, concerns about the environmental impact of single use plastics are at the forefront of consumer consciousness and increasingly business consciousness too.

It’s easy to be cynical and assume that consumer perceptions are driving business’s reputational risk awareness and reducing plastic in packaging and supply chains has becoming this year’s top priority. However, it is clear that many companies really want to do “the right thing”, albeit not at unlimited business or financial risk.

There is a lack of consensus, however, about what is and the sense that in trying to do the right thing one could well end up doing absolutely the wrong thing. In such a volatile and uncertain space, with emerging technologies, a range of end-of-life options, multiple influencing groups and stakeholders with strong vested interests, it is as yet unclear which solutions will become ubiquitous and therefore where it will be best to invest.

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It’s a material science problem, yes?

The first assumption is generally that this is about replacing plastic with something “nicer”; something that degrades naturally and without unpleasant emissions, or is truly circular – i.e. recyclable rather than a single-use solution that will persist on a beach long enough to shame its manufacturer thirty years hence. But that’s the thing, it is not as simple as changing one material for another. The choice depends on functionality in terms of food quality and safety, shelf life stability and also in conveying brand messaging. Is it recyclable? Is it going to incur extended producer responsibility (EPR) tax? Is it regulatorily compliant? Is there a defined waste stream and infrastructure for recycling and do deposit return schemes (DRS) apply? Do consumers understand how to recycle or dispose of the material – all of these things are important for material/packaging sourcing.