Reducing plastic waste requires thoughtful yet bold steps. Where to start?
By Stuart Gilby
Conscious consumers and governments are sending a consistent and resounding message to businesses: Ditch the plastic. The misuse of plastic has created a global emergency, with more than 400 million tons of waste every year.
While interest in alternatives has never been higher for businesses, finding a suitable substitute feels like a mountain to climb. Should companies continue to use plastic? Which plastics can be recycled or reused? How should consumers eliminate plastics?
Rather than letting others take the risk or waiting for new solutions to be better established, we must act now. However, reducing plastic waste requires thoughtful yet bold steps. Where to start?
Making sense of a complex world
While plastic is touted as the blight of the environment and a blight on our shelves, the truth is there are many applications where plastic is the right (or only) choice.
In many scenarios where plastic packaging is used multiple times, such as in secondary or tertiary packaging, plastic can provide a low impact material if recycled at end of life.
Rather than adopting the blanket stance of eradicating plastic completely, companies must first audit their use of plastics, weigh existing alternatives for replacement, and analyze how these materials can be recycled, reused, and reused only now. 9% of plastic waste in the world is recycled.
McDonald’s has taken this approach. Recognizing that at this time completely eliminating plastic is not possible, the company is focusing on reduce the use of plastic. Of its packaging for customers, 80% is made from fiber sources, with the remaining 20% being plastic. In a quarter of its restaurants, McDonald’s also offers its customers the possibility of recycling packaging directly on site.
Harness the power of human ingenuity
In addition to arming your business with a comprehensive understanding of plastic use and waste management strategies, another part of reducing plastic reliance is human ingenuity.
While researching various alternative plastic options used in your industry is the first step, it shouldn’t be the only step. Companies looking to push the boundaries should seek solutions and inspiration outside of their own industry through technology intelligence to identify promising ideas. A range of innovative approaches is already emerging.
For example, when it comes to alternative materials to plastic, the London start-up Notpla uses seaweed material develop an alternative to plastic bottles.
In terms of waste reduction, Biotic is reinventing plastic with a scalable, fully biosourced and completely biodegradable alternative material. This allows consumers to throw product packaging in the trash and the packaging to decompose, eliminating the need for recycling.
Finally, Newlight Technologies, a California-based company, is taking things a step further by developing AirCarbon, a carbon-negative product that uses microorganisms from the ocean to convert methane and carbon dioxide into a polymer to replace the plastic in everyday objects such as straws and cutlery.
And in cases where alternatives to plastics are not viable, many start-ups are working to develop a circular economy for hard-to-recycle plastics. For example, the British company Recycling Technologies uses chemical recycling transform plastic waste into monomers and raw material for new polymers.
The plastic emergency is so urgent that our response must be revolutionary, not scalable. While companies need time to assess their position and make pragmatic decisions, they also need to recognize that they can bring about change much faster than they imagine.
The response to the pandemic proves this in multiple ways. When the coronavirus hit, effective vaccines were developed in less than a year. We need to apply the same kind of speed to find alternative solutions to plastic waste problems, but be aware of our impacts.
For example, we should seek funding from governments to launch business travel. Many governments are actively looking to find ways to develop new innovations by funding new research and this area is a hot topic right now.
Many of these funds also require collaboration between companies and universities so that a company can expand its network at the same time. In May 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a commitment of up to $14.5 million for research and development to fight against plastic waste and pollution.
Moreover, to create momentum for innovation, companies should focus on simpler solutions such as replacing materials with recyclable alternatives. By tracking successes and having a win under their belt, they will give consumers an indication that they are on the right track.
And finally, it is highly unlikely that a single solution will solve all problems. This means that a company’s supply chain will become more complex, but as the pandemic has shown, humans can solve complex problems in extraordinary circumstances by working towards a common goal.
The impacts of discarded plastic are becoming increasingly evident. As consumers continue to pressure businesses and governments to act, brands must accelerate new packaging solutions, empower customers to make positive purchasing choices, and become drivers of change.
Stuart Gilby is a sustainability expert at PA Consulting