Single Use Backlash

9 minute read

The sixth article of Earth Matters investigates the renewed and growing appetite for single-use in a post-pandemic world. As coronavirus-conscious consumers actively seek out protective plastics, is the battle against throw-away losing ground? Or can innovative brands offer products and services that provide the costconvenience and hygiene benefits of single-use (plastics) without the environmental damage?

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Plastic is everywhere. Since 1907, when Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland created Bakelite – the first synthetic, mass-produced plastic – humankind has made, used and discarded an unfathomable quantity of the material, passing the 100 million tonne mark as far back as the early 1990s.

And the numbers only get more astounding. Today, over 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally every year, with around 50% being for single-use purposes [1]. Shockingly, only 9% of all plastic waste ever made has been recycled, with around 12% being incinerated, and a staggering 79% accumulating in landfills and our natural environment [2].

One step forward…

Managing the scale of our plastic problem isn’t a new challenge. For the past 3 decades, scientists have desperately been trying to highlight the damage being done to Mother Nature. In the early 1990s, researchers noticed that 60-80% of the waste in the ocean was plastic [3]. And the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – which, given that it is three times the size of France, should probably be called an island-state – is the most famous collection of floating waste and was first discovered in 1997 [4]. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that consumers really started to take notice of and act on the single-use plastic problem.

The catalyst for today’s consumer-driven, anti-plastic crusade is often attributed to the BBC series Blue Planet II. The final episode aired in 2018 and dedicated six minutes to exposing the damage being done to our planet and the marine life on it. Viewers were shocked and heartbroken to see a turtle hopelessly tangled in netting, albatross parents unsuspectingly feeding their chicks plastic, and a blue whale carrying the lifeless body of its calf, killed because its mother’s milk had been polluted by plastic.

“Unless the flow of plastics and industrial pollution into the ocean is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come. The creatures that live in the big blue are perhaps more remote than any other animal, but not remote enough to escape the effects of what we are doing to their world.”  

Sir David Attenborough, Blue Planet II, 2018

After watching the episode, an incredible 88% of viewers vowed to change their behaviour as part of what became known as the Blue Planet II Effect [5] (whether or not this well- intentioned audience ended up keeping their promise is up for debate – read more about the action-intention gap in our previous Earth Matters article, Less is More). And the ocean plastic cause also gained the support of celebrities and public figures, from Prince Charles [6] to Kim Kardashian [7].

The Blue Planet II Effect led to rapid positive change in both government legislation and consumer behaviour, with a number of countries banning single-use plastic bags, policies to ban plastic straws and stirrers being fast-tracked, and coffee shops offering discounts when customers forego a disposable cup.

But there’s a reason why single-use plastics account for an estimated 50% of all plastic produced: it’s convenient, cheap, accessible and offers clear hygiene and product protection benefits.

…Two steps back?

Our dependency on plastic has become especially obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic, as consumers and brands look to its accessible, effective protective properties to control infection and allay fears of transmission.

“Before the crisis, people were looking for more unpackaged, loose produce, [but] people are interestingly going back to pre-packed produce because they believe that’s a safer purchase.”

David Lewis, Chief Executive of Tesco, 2020

In addition to the desire for additional food packaging, plastic has played a key role in healthcare. Its hygienic and barrier properties make it the ideal material for PPE, and the sight of disposable gloves and face masks littering our streets is sadly becoming the new normal. A sharp rise in demand for cleaning products has also required more plastic, and the British Plastics Federation states that its members that supply packaging for food, drink, bleach, handwash and medicines are operating at record capacities.

So, just like the economic downturn of 2008-2009 set back action on climate policies, campaigners are now worried that the same could happen for plastic. But things can be different this time. The anti-single-use momentum is still strong and innovative companies and brands are offering products and services that can provide the cost, convenience and hygiene benefits of single-use without the environmental damage… Even in this anxious, post-pandemic world.

Eco-economics

With the falling price of oil, the cost of petroleum-based materials has also dropped, making single-use plastic even more appealing [8]. However, when it comes to its disposal, it is society that usually bears the burden of responsibility, with local authorities and recycling centres dealing with the waste rather than the brands, manufacturers and companies that make and sell the products and packaging.

A piece of packaging that costs only a few pence to make can cost considerably more to recycle or dispose of correctly, and when single use items are disposed of incorrectly – becoming litter on the streets or polluting waterways, for example – the cost of cleaning up can increase exponentially.

Trailblazing brands are turning single-use, throw-away items into reusable and returnable offerings that can provide an enhanced experience at a competitive price, and without the cost to society.

Bursting the bubble (wrap)

French start-up Living Packets have developed a smart, reusable shipping container manufactured from shock-proof polypropylene, with an integrated holding and locking mechanism that eliminates the need for bubble wrap and tape, and a low-power e-ink display instead of paper labels. Built-in sensors improve last-mile logistics, and retailers pay-per-use, making it comparable in cost to a throw-away cardboard box and turning e-commerce packaging from a product to a service.

Living Packets

 

Sustainable spirit

Singapore-based Proof & Company has developed a refillable spirit packaging system as an alternative to single-use glass. Bulk steel containers are distributed to bars, where bartenders refill their own bottles. Once empty, the canisters go back to the distillery to be sanitised and refilled. The steel packs are both lighter and tougher than glass, which cuts carbon emissions and breakages. The containers are also designed to be stackable, for easier storage back-of-house.

Proof and Co.

 

It’s a wrap

The founder of Bee’s Wrap wanted a more sustainable, plastic-free way of storing food. Inspired by forgotten traditional materials and methods, the wraps protect with a beeswax-coated, organic cotton that is sealed around food using only the warmth of your hands. The wax wraps eliminate the need for cling film and are made from a reusable, renewable and compostable material. Furthermore, preventing air from reaching ingredients increases shelf life and reduces food wastage.

Bee’s Wrap

 

Consciously convenient

From a consumer lifestyle perspective, a clear advantage of single-use items is convenience: take-away cups, plastic water bottles, disposable cutlery – they are all designed to make our on-the-go lives a little easier… But at what environmental cost?

Forward-thinking brands have cleverly re-designed products and packaging to strip away the eco-negatives, reducing the need for compromise and softening the blow of behaviour change, while still retaining convenience.

Perfectly portioned

UK personal care brand Beauty Kubes has released a multipurpose, high performing, vegan shampoo and bodywash cube, with plastic-free, biodegradable paper packaging that holds the product in single portion (cube) form, for greater portability and convenience. The cubes are also made using green energy.

Beauty Kubes

Virtuous vending

Energy drink brand Lucozade is partnering with UK sustainable packaging supplier Notpla to trial vending machines that dispense 30ml capsules of Lucozade Sport encased in edible, seaweed-based pods. The bite-sized sachets can be eaten whole and provide an on-the-go power boost, minus the plastic waste.

Notpla x Lucozade

 

Plastic-free portability

Corona has redesigned its cans to be interlocking and stackable. This negates the need for both plastic six-pack rings and carrier bags when buying multiple cans, and it whittles down the materials to just aluminium, which is infinitely recyclable and more energy efficient than using virgin material.

Corona Stackable Cans

Hygiene heroes

In March 2020, plastics lobbyists sent a letter to the US Department of Health calling for a public statement on the health and safety benefits of single-use plastic during a pandemic [9]. However, fearful that the fight against single-use plastic waste might be losing ground, the letter was countered earlier this month by a signed statement from 119 scientists from 18 countries, reassuring the public that reusable containers are safe during the Covid-19 pandemic and that they do not increase the chance of virus transmission [10].

It’s fair to say that consumers are getting mixed messages when it comes to hygiene, protection and the role of single-use plastics during the pandemic. But they can find sustainable reassurance in innovative brands and companies that are developing products and services capable of offering hygienic, safe and viable alternatives that do not depend on disposable plastics.

Positive periods

Dame waives the waste associated with feminine hygiene products with the world’s first reusable tampon applicator. Made from medical grade materials and Sanipolymers® (plastic with trace elements of zinc), the applicator works in the usual way, but has natural antimicrobial properties, killing upto 99% of bacteria, germs and microbes. After use, the self-sanitising tool is simply rinsed in cold water and stored in its protective pouch, with no need for boiling or toxic chemicals.

Dame

 

Greener grocery

Opening a packaging-free grocery store mid-pandemic might not seem like a savvy business move, but LA-based Tare has done so successfully by offering customers a curated, personal experience, whilst maintaining protection and hygiene levels. The warm, simple space only allows three people in at once, so the brand can truly focus on each customer. And hygiene standards are met sans plastic and conforming with the US ban on refill containers by temporarily offering paper bags.

Tare

 

Plastic-free protection

Recently featured in That’s Interesting, non-profit A Plastic Planet has partnered with Reelbrands and Transcend Packaging to challenge plastic PPE with an effective sustainable alternative. Their plastic-free protective visors are made from FSC food-grade paper and certified, home compostable wood cellulose, making them fully recyclable and compostable. The price also closely matches that of the plastic alternative, with Reelbrands selling at cost to encourage sustainability.

Reelbrands

 

In 2019, a single-use plastic carrier bag was found at the bottom of the world’s deepest ocean trench, 10,973 meters below sea level [11]. This makes for a depressingly fitting parallel with how deeply entrenched humanity’s dependence on plastic is, especially during these challenging times.

However, just like we evolved from the Stone Age to that of Bronze and Iron, there is space, scope and hope that we can move out of this Plastic Age. And that the next era will not be named after another finite resource, but be a tribute to a whole host of innovative eco-materials and ingenious, sustainable life choices.

 

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