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.
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.