Blue Planet II revealed the scale of harm to marine life from discarded plastic ©Roland Seitre/NaturePL
Blue Planet II revealed the scale of harm to marine life from discarded plastic ©Roland Seitre/NaturePL

How business can help in the fight against plastic waste

23 February 2018

Every year, 12.7m tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans. Supply functions are in a unique position to make a difference and drive changes that will benefit the world for generations to come.  

For many it started with Blue Planet II. The BBC series, fronted by natural-history presenter David Attenborough, was watched by 14m viewers. Its stark message: plastic waste is destroying our oceans, from discarded packaging that suffocates marine life to the invisible microbeads that are swallowed by fish and enter our food chain. The programme threw down a gauntlet, challenging governments, businesses and consumers.

Suddenly the topic was everywhere. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation publicised its report into the circular textile economy, with designer Stella McCartney. Environment secretary Michael Gove announced he wanted the UK “to become a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic littering our planet and our oceans”. The government’s 25-year environment plan published a month later leaves no business uncertain about the need to act. It sets out to: eliminate unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic packaging; make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable; increase the collection and recycling of plastic packaging; increase recycled content in plastic packaging to drive demand for recycled material; and impassion and enable citizens to play their part in reducing plastic packaging waste and litter.

It’s not just big news in the UK. A circular economy forum was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos to stimulate public- and private-sector engagement. And China recently enforced a ban on imports of millions of tonnes of plastic waste – leaving Europe with a growing pile of rubbish.

Businesses have been looking at greener packaging measures for some time, but there is nothing like a bit of public awareness to prompt action. Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, describes the current rate of movement as “rapid – both in commerce and government”. “The question,” she adds, “is whether this momentum will be sustained for long enough to significantly reduce the threat. There needs to be a major shift in materials use and investment in waste processing.”

“The true scale of the threat from plastic is something that is in the process of being revealed by marine biology, and some of the most important discoveries have been quite recent,” she continues. “Studies are revealing the movement of microplastics through the marine food chain, and there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge on what the impacts will be. For example, we know that plastic has been found in up to 90% of seabirds, and that seabird populations have crashed in recent decades, but we don’t know to what degree the first phenomenon has caused the second.”

Some industries are further ahead of others when it comes to taking positive action, from reducing the production of pellet-sized plastic offcuts from manufacturing processes – quaintly called nurdles – that break down into microbeads, to cutting out non-recyclable plastic. In the cosmetics sector, for example, more than 20 businesses, including The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, pledged to phase out microbeads in products before the UK’s legal ban on using them in toothpaste and cosmetics came into force in January. Unilever claimed to have done so without any additional cost. Durable household goods and consumer electronics, retail and food sectors are also challenging and managing plastics use, according to the Plastic Disclosure Project, which offers a plastics test for businesses and lists some solution providers. The furniture, automotive and athletics-goods sectors are active, but less so, it says.

What many consumers did learn from the recent publicity was that fleece and other synthetic textiles release microbeads into our water with every wash. So far there is no legislation to prevent this, but businesses that respond with speed to these kinds of revelations can win public favour and new markets.

The Guppyfriend, a laundry bag that traps microbeads, was developed by German outdoors clothing start-up Langbrett (see below) out of a desire to cut the company’s contribution to marine waste, and is now helping to grow the business.

The same is true in other sectors. Biomaterials start-up US Ecovative is now scoring deals with global brands like Dell and Ikea, supplying its mushroom-based product to replace polystyrene packaging. It produced 1m lbs of mycelium materials last year. Dell for one is gaining valuable positive social-media attention for its recycling stance.

The changing attitude of consumers to plastic is a big part of what drives change, says Alan Gunner, business development director of Adjuno, which provides software for supply chain transparency. He sees a growing interest from clients in packaging, in how products comply with specifications and in standards to reduce plastic. “When you start to look at changing or removing plastic shrink-wrap for convenience, it becomes incredibly complicated,” he says. “But the sooner you get stuck in, the sooner you can make changes.”

Start with the small items, he suggests, like removing plastic covers on hanging garments and boxed items. And where plastic is more difficult to remove, you can still look at reducing the space that packaging takes up. “We are looking at packaging efficiently, less air, or using less material to package.”

It was the launch of a new ready-meals range that kicked off Iceland Foods’ decision to remove plastic entirely from its own brands within five years, explains own-label and packaging manager Ian Schofield. “We said ‘hold on a minute, we are doing all these plastic trays and they are not being recycled’, and we use 100m a year,” he says. His team started investigating how to make the packaging microwavable and recyclable.

Iceland surveyed customers for their views on plastics: 80% told them to phase it out and 68% said a company doing so would make them change their shopping habits. “That was a game changer for us,” says Schofield. The retailer is committing to keep the project cost neutral, given that consumers – however they respond to an online survey – might not want to pay more. Tactics like revising production efficiencies, running the line quicker by removing a process or another piece of packaging, or buying greater quantities can keep prices down, even if the packing itself costs more, which is not always the case, he adds.

The trays for the new range are made entirely from Swedish spruce trees. “We use waste products, after the wood has been cut,” explains Schofield. “It goes into the fibres for our board. Because we use a lot of board already, we looked to see if we could get it pressed into a tray. It was really just thinking differently about the product we’ve got. Some food services use this board already, so we just adapted something that was already there for retail.”

Until Iceland can amend the sealing equipment on the line, it is still using a polyester film that lasts in the oven and microwave. But a paper-based one is being tested to replace it. “It has to be tamper-proof because we don’t want those trays to be open to the atmosphere, or open in the freezer,” Schofield says.

Despite being at the early stage of development, the team is able to find suppliers. “As soon as you spread the word that you are doing these things, many more entrepreneurial companies come out of the woodwork,” he says. “We are talking to one from India, with a plant-based product that dissolves in water – a really great idea if it works.”

The research and development time does cost more, he admits, but it is a short-term issue, and being a private company helps Iceland’s agility. “In the first couple of years it will certainly cost us in effort and money. But we believe it will drive others to do the same, and after that it will reverse.”

Products need to catch up with consumer demand, with coffee cups a case in point, says one CPO involved in catering. As well as choosing the most recyclable option available, his business tries to influence consumers to use fewer by making reusable cups available and visible. “Meanwhile, we are working with industry to find the best biodegradable solution, while providing good sustainable alternatives,” he says.

The retail sector, and food packaging in particular, is a key focus for anti-plastics crusaders, but suggestions such as plastic-free aisles in supermarkets are tokenistic, according to Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe. “It needs a holistic solution,” he told the BBC’s Today programme, suggesting revisiting recycling standards, or the plastics used. While Sainsbury’s has cut plastic use by 30% since 2006, the material does perform a purpose, he said: “One of the things that is commonly cited is ‘why do we put plastic on cucumbers’ – it extends the life of those products.”

Greenpeace’s Edge agrees it’s important businesses don’t oversimplify the problem, and rush to replace plastic with whatever else is easily available. “We need to consider weight, as part of energy use, preservative qualities where necessary, and the impacts of material extraction and processing, as well as disposal,” she says. “However, with many materials, the environmental problems can be overcome by better-regulated production and disposal – wood and paper being good examples. In the case of plastics, it is the material’s intrinsic qualities that constitute the problem.”

Plastics are highly recyclable, points out Helen Jordan, sustainability issues executive for the British Plastics Federation (BPF). “Society needs to stop thinking of plastic as ‘waste’, but as a renewable resource that needs to be disposed of correctly,” she says. And with plastic rubbish piling up around Europe, this is becoming an urgent need.

The BPF is part of the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan to increase recycling. “Plastic beverage bottle recycling rates are now at 74%, and the whole of the UK, Europe and the US combined account for just 2% of marine litter,” Jordan claims. “But the industry would like to see an end to marine litter entirely, which requires international action.” Globally, more than 260 marine litter projects are underway.

“Plastic is an amazing material, easy to produce and shape, versatile, impermeable, and durable,” agrees Greenpeace’s Edge. “Unfortunately, some of these qualities, particularly its durability, make it entirely unsuitable for some of its common uses, most obviously packaging. Finding materials which have some, but not all of plastic’s qualities will be difficult in some cases, and may have seemed impossible until recently. However, now that we have acceptance of the need for change, a business trying to improve their packaging will be joining a growing consortium, rather than trying to create one.”

This means cooperation between businesses will be key – and non-negotiable. “Any business that comes up with a brilliant solution to part of the plastic problem, but tries to restrict its adoption, is going to get worse press than businesses who just stick with plastic,” warns Edge. “Whatever steps need to be taken to pool expense and risk, and facilitate rapid widespread adoption, need to be agreed as quickly as possible.”

 

Guppyfriend

The business that has grown out of finding a solution

Langbrett started as a club for outdoorsy people who were environmentally aware, and then moved into selling clothing. Having heard about the problems with microbeads entering the ocean through clothing, the company did some research and looked for a pragmatic solution.

That crowd-funded solution is the Guppyfriend, a polyamide washing bag that gathers microbeads (to be discarded in landfill) from synthetic clothes when they are washed. Through testing with the University of California and the Fraunhoffer Institute, the product has been validated. “We can now officially say that 75%-86% of fibres break less than washing without the bag,” says MD and co-founder Alexander Nolte.

The bag is not made for profit and the margins are not that high, he says, but it is helping to drive the message and grow the company. “The bag is helping communicate the problem. And of course you can make money if you solve the problem.”

The hard part in the early days was persuading production partners to invest in machinery. “It took some time to convince them that there is a market for this,” Nolte says. The company has been able to scale up to meet demand, and now has production in Switzerland, Portugal and China. “We are thinking about other solutions for profit now,” says Nolte.

While the business is growing, being small has its advantages. “We have small manufacturers in Germany, Spain and Portugal. We bring them together, we know all about them, we know where the glue comes from, the leather. We can control that because we are small.”

 

The scientists developing new packaging

Finland’s advances in eco-friendly materials science

Ali Harlin, research professor at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, is behind the multilayer cellulose packaging that won funding from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It is now expected to be commercially available in three to five years.

The material is suitable as light, airtight packaging for small dry items with elements of fat, like crisps, snacks and cereals. It is fully biodegradable, and will extend shelf life rather than reduce it.

VTT is owned by the government of Finland – a country that runs a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, recycling 98% of its waste plastic, and has been working in the area of plastic replacement for some time. “In Finland, we have quite a lot of innovative work around packaging materials,” Harlin reveals.

Sourcing the packaging raw material will not be a problem, he says: “The beauty is that cellulose is on the planet already – we will not have to establish a new field for cellulose. We can take it from leftovers, residues and reactive recycles.”

 

How to change packaging by Ian Schofield, own-label and packaging manager, Iceland

Currently, only 30% of plastic is recycled, and the rest goes to landfill or is dumped abroad. Iceland is trying to get the government and councils to recycle more, but this will be slow, so let’s get rid of plastic – we are doing untold damage, he says.

  • You must have boardroom commitment. Without it, change will never happen. And you must change the culture at head office: no single-use coffee or water cups, recycle all waste, and so on.
  • Set up supplier days so everybody gets the same message and rules. Challenge everything that has gone before.
  • Do the easy things first. Remove plain films on frozen products and put straight into board packs – this takes out tonnage straight away. Putting eggs back into pulp trays is another good one.
  • Build in packaging development with the product development – they should go in parallel. Often we have good product ideas, but at the last minute think about packaging. Then we don’t have enough packaging development time to introduce new items. It is all about critical paths.
  • We built our own packaging and product due diligence software. This has been critical in looking at the size of the task and the number of lines (1,000) we need to change.
  • Put in a programme of six monthly goals that are achievable, and stick to them.
  • Sell internally to all departments. You need an ambassador to achieve this.
  • Shout about your success. Our reach on our campaign on social media has reached 21m.
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