Creating a sustainable future

One of the most-used English words of 2018 is ... single-use. Which does not really come as a surprise.

Plastic waste

Every year, Collins Dictionary reveals its word of the year. ‘Single-use’ has been announced as 2018’s buzzword, referring to items such as plastic that are used once and then thrown away. Worryingly, the word has seen a four-fold increase since 2013, with news stories and TV programmes such as the BBC TV series Blue Planet II significantly raising public awareness. Those images of plastic straws, bottles and bags adrift in the most distant oceans have led to a global campaign to reduce their use.

Recycling still not widespread

Although some plastics can be recycled, most are not – either because they are not recyclable or because people do not put them into recycling bins. For example, only 0.25% of the 3.2 billion kg of discarded PVC is recycled annually in the US.

Disposable coffee cups are technically recyclable, but most are not. In the UK, there are only three facilities that can split paper and plastic components for recycling.

Sticks not carrots

In the wake of the single-use furore and the seeming lack of behaviour change, legislation has been quick to follow. Where properly planned and enforced, levies and bans have previously been among the most effective strategies to curb plastic waste.

Many countries are addressing this global problem. The UK has pledged to eradicate all ‘avoidable plastic waste’ by 2042. India will eliminate all single- use plastic by 2022, with an immediate ban in urban Delhi. Sri Lanka has banned polystyrene and China is insisting on biodegradable bags.

The first-ever European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted in January 2018, aiming to transform the way plastic products are designed, used, produced and recycled in the EU. Better design, higher waste recycling rates, plus more and better quality recyclates will help boost the market for recycled plastics and discourage single-use.

In May 2018, the European Commission proposed new EU-wide rules to target the ten single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and in the sea, as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear which constitute 70% of all marine litter.

It is plastic but not as we know it

Legislation is not entirely negative, as banning something for good reasons often leads to the creation of innovative alternatives.

In a comprehensive report published in June 2018, UN Environment has presented an A-Z of 35 potential bio substitutes for plastic. This runs from Abaca hemp (from the inedible banana Musa textilis) to Zein (from a maize protein). The list includes rabbit fur, sea grass, foam made with fungus and PiñatexTM, a material made from pineapple leaves.

Viable alternatives are popping up all over the world. Another example comes from a group of designers in Japan who have created a prototype seaweed design using a seaweed-derived substance called agar as a biodegradable substitute for conventional plastic packaging. Boiling certain types of algae and dehydrating the resulting soup creates a variety of shapes and textures that could replace plastic film or foam packaging.

Researchers are also revitalising the idea of converting casein, the principal protein found in milk, into biodegradable material that matches the stiffness and compressibility of polystyrene.

And what could be more appealing than technology that takes waste out of landfills and transforms it into biodegradable plastic? In the US, disposing of chicken feathers is a huge problem, with more than 1.4 billion kg having to be dealt with annually. Thanks to innovation, feathers may soon be a resource

for a new water-resistant thermoplastic. They are composed almost entirely of keratin, a protein so tough that it can give strength and durability to plastics.

Sustainable friend or foe?

Do you have a proactive plan in place for using plastic alternatives before legislation forces you to do so?

Further inspiration, advice and support are available through bodies such as the Pet Sustainability Coalition. There are also companies who specialise in designing sustainable products and packaging, such as Trayak in the US, whose tools allow designers and engineers to incorporate environmental feedback at every stage of the product or packaging development process.


Helen Bennie

Strategic retail consultant