We need to talk about plastics

It seems like we can’t go a day at the moment without reading or hearing  about the devastating impact of plastics in our aquatic environment. Blue Planet 2 has shocked us all with powerful images of plastics in our oceans, Chancellor Hammond has set out plans to explore new taxing of single-use plastic, Defra is using 1,400 plastic lined disposable coffee cups a day despite Michael Gove promising to urgently tackle plastic pollution when he took over. 83% of global tap water supplies contain plastic fibre, in the UK this is 72%. These fibres are found in honey, sugar, beer, rock salt, fish and are even found falling from the air. We produce 300m tonnes of plastic a year and only 20% of it gets recycled. 8m tonnes enters the oceans each year, and currently, over 5 trillion (yes, trillion) pieces of plastic are floating on the surface of our seas and oceans.

This is an environmental and health disaster happening in front of our eyes. Every day each of us uses, consumes and throws away large quantities of plastics, each of us is contributing to this massive problem. In the UK, 38.5m plastic bottles are used every day – that’s one each, every day, for the entire working age population of the country. Whilst swigging from our drinks bottles, we also get through 2.5bn disposal coffee cups a year.

So what can UK businesses do? Well, I think three things are within reach of most UK businesses:

  1. Get out the bins and work out just how much plastic waste is being produced, how well it is being segregated and recycled – make it easy for your staff to do the right thing with their waste. I have lost count of the number of times we see all sorts of different bins, poorly labelled, in the wrong place, confusing everyone
  2. Look hard at all the plastics used in food/catering/kitchenette operations and for packaging – much of this can be replaced by reusable, bio, recycled options – get rid of the plastic cups, give people re-usable ones, work with food suppliers to change their packaging, get other suppliers to take their plastic packaging back. There are many strategies that will work in any organisation
  3. Make plastic use and waste part of the environmental disclosure and reporting that your organisation undertakes – making this a shared challenge, sharing what you learn is vital – we’re all part of the problem

And… if you’re ambitious, like a growing number of the organisations we work with – set a goal to eliminate single-use plastic from your organisation – it sounds huge but done carefully, this is doable, affordable and an extraordinarily powerful message to staff, customers and suppliers. People instinctively get why it’s important and what they can do to help – it’s a strong, clear, simple environmental message.

At Carbon Smart, we are on this journey ourselves, we’ve got some good waste segregation going on  in the office and the plastic waste we produce is recycled or turned to energy. Our next challenge (and for me personally, a biggy) is to wean ourselves off the disposable plastics that come with buying lunch from local shops.

Make sustaianbility work!

Plastic packaging alternatives – what should you procure?

Plastic, one of the most useful and versatile materials, but also one of the most unsustainable and environmentally damaging. A 2016 study from the World Economic Forum states that each year, over 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into the ocean, which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one rubbish truck into the ocean every minute. If this current pattern continues, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Majority of plastic takes centuries to decompose in the environment and once in the ocean, leach potentially toxic chemicals such as bispenol A and hydrocarbons, which are harmful to not only marine life, but other organisms within the food chain, including humans (National Geographic). Marine species including seals, dolphins and whales are significantly impacted by plastic pollution, with an estimate from Plymouth University stating at least 100 million marine mammals are killed each year from plastic pollution.

The awareness to how detrimentally damaging this material is, is slowly increasing with many companies now taking a stand against un-necessary plastics in their supply chains. Sustainability leaders, such as Sky, have started to remove plastic from their canteen as part of their Ocean Rescue campaign. Increasingly, we see businesses looking to understand how they too can do their bit to minimise the use of plastics, yet not sure where to start.

With nearly half of the global plastic produced used for packaging, it is as good as any place to start with reducing and minimising the use of single-use plastic packaging – the type of plastic most likely to end up polluting our oceans.

There are now a number of sustainable packaging companies that produce alternative products made from plant-based materials (such as Poly-Lactic Acid), an alternative that looks and feels exactly like plastic) or kraft paper products. Not only can these products be disposed of via a number of different routes, for example either straight in the mixed recycling (kraft paper based products) or in the compost/food waste bin (sugar cane and PLA based products), they also decompose at a much quicker rate than any plastic product, making them considerably less environmentally damaging.

But which sustainable packaging products are good? And who produces the best products? Carbon Smart has taken the opportunity to review a selection of products from three companies: Vegware, Biopac and GreenGate. We’ve focused on compostable products, that can be used for takeaways, such as alternatives to the plastic salad boxes used in office canteens and plastic cutlery.

 

Compostable cutlery

Conversations with our clients have led us to believe that compostable cutlery seem to have a bad reputation – always breaking and not performing as well as their plastic counterparts.  However, if you have already been trialling out the lower carbon intensive compostable takeaway boxes, you may be experiencing the same challenge we often face – employees will dispose of their compostable boxes in the correct waste stream, but will leave their plastic cutlery inside the box, i.e. leading to contamination. We think it’s about time we test out the alternative cutlery options ourselves to see if one of three compostable companies we’ve chosen has a good, robust product.

The best alternative to plastic cutlery we found is the  RCPLA cutlery sourced from Vegware. RCPLA, standing for recycled compostable PLA, is  an incredibly low carbon alternative to other compostable cutlery (CPLA – compostable PLA cutlery), with Vegware stating that these products contain 51% less carbon than new PLA. The cutlery is durable and sturdy, and  performs just as well as plastic cutlery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CPLA (left) vs. RCPLA in Vegware’s black colour (right)

 

The compostable cold cup:

A huge contributor to the single-use plastic waste often seen for large businesses is the plastic cup. With many different uses, sizes and shapes, the plastic cup is incredibly versatile.

With PLA cold cups looking and feeling exactly the same as their plastic counterparts, the samples that stood out from all companies tested were the cups displaying slogans. The slogans provide enough information for employees using these cups to realise that they are not made from plastic, and therefore, help to overcome the challenge of correct after use disposal.

A good example is the PLA cold cup sourced from Biopac:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatives to the plastic salad box:

There are a number of different alternatives to the typical plastic salad takeaway box, ranging from the clear PLA container to the 100% kraft box. In comparison to the compostable takeaway boxes mentioned earlier as the cutlery’s new sidekick, the salad boxes are only used for cold food. They need to be leak proof, durable and compete with plastic products.

The kraft boxes were chosen by the Carbon Smart team as the best alternatives, with the main reason being they are more obviously a compostable product in comparison to the PLA lunch container that looks and feels exactly like plastic. Vegware, Biopac and Greengate all produce good kraft box products:

Vegware (top left), Biopac (top right) and GreenGate (bottom)

 

The main challenge for compostable products is their after-use disposal. The products highlighted in this blog  as the best alternatives have been chosen because they are of the higher quality products on the market, and they also stand out as being compostable.

With so many compostable products on the market that can rival any plastic product, businesses now have the opportunity to review their current procurement decisions and make the change to compostable alternatives. Businesses should be the first to make the swap to single-use plastic alternatives and start to become the solution to  the current global problem of plastics and the detrimental impact they have on the environment. Now armed with this review, is there any other excuse?

 

More plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050

Recent aerial surveys of the great Pacific garbage patch by the Ocean Cleanup have revealed just how extensive plastic pollution is in our oceans, with large islands of debris now visible from space. The environmental implications of plastic use on a global scale have, for the most part, not been considered until recently, which has led to the situation whereby The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.

Plastic waste is not only an environmental concern, it is an economic one. A recent report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that after just a single use, 95% of the material value of plastic packaging ($80-120 billion) is lost to the economy. This represents a disconnect between the ambitious internal recycling targets of organisations and low capture rates seen on a global scale. It is thought that 32% of all plastic packaging escapes collection, and of the material that is captured by waste infrastructure, only 14% is recycled.

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While the high functionality and low cost of plastic has made us dependent on it for some of our most basic needs, designing better products that enable society to move beyond plastics is a necessary step along the path of responsible consumption. Over the past few years, entrepreneurs around the world have designed new materials with strong environmental credentials to replace plastics. Award-winning Agar Plasticity is one such example of this, derived from seaweed and offering a snapshot of what sustainable packaging could look like.

Collaboration with industry is vital if such innovations are to succeed as often these new technologies fail to reach scale due to high capex or processing costs. Many leading organisations are doing just this; IKEA recently announced exciting plans to use Ecovative’s mushroom packaging grown from mycelium as a substitute to conventional polystyrene. Similarly, compostable plastic containers are becoming increasingly popular in offices around the world as sustainability and procurement teams work together to reduce plastic in their supply chains.

The widespread use of this material is just another manifestation of our addiction to oil which, in light of the Paris Agreement, must be addressed by industry, governments and consumers alike. Whilst positive steps are being taken at both a local and governmental level, plastic will remain, at least in the short term, one of the most widely used packaging materials. As responsible consumers, we should all strive to put down the plastic bags and say no to the existing take-make-dispose linear economy. Demanding change at a consumer level can have greater impacts than one might initially think.

Illustration: Ellen MacArthur Foundation