This is the second in a four-part blog series exploring not just the problem with plastic, but the huge opportunity for business to take a positive stand in the face of the biggest environmental catastrophe of our time.
The first blog post in this series sparked some interesting conversations on social media.
Suggesting the war on ocean plastic waste is a battle to be fought and won solely by the actions of business (buoyed by national and regional policy development) triggered an interesting counter debate.
What if plastic is not the problem, but human behaviour is to blame? Humans litter our planet, perhaps, because of poor education around recycling, or because they simply don’t value our planet and the natural environment.
It’s a powerful and emotive argument, and undoubtedly, it’s a position that’s hard to contest; if consumers better recycled the plastics that entered homes and businesses, significantly less would end up in our oceans. “Plastic doesn’t escape from humans like a prisoner of war,” came one response. “It is dumped by a human race consumed with consumption. It is laziness…and total disrespect for the planet.”
According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, of the 78 million tonnes of plastic waste created every year, 40% ends up in a landfill and a pitiful 14% is collected for recycling. This fact is all the more shocking because almost all plastics used for packaging are mechanically recyclable with little or no quality impairment.
It is the plastics system that needs to change, argues McArthur, pointing to redesigned packaging, alternative materials and better infrastructure to cope with more efficient and complex plastics recycling.
Right now, placing the onus on consumers is a tough ask.
You only have to look at how the war on carbon emissions has played out to realise that asking inherently lazy consumers to do the right thing – whether that’s turning down their thermostats, washing at 30 degrees or replacing lightbulbs – is not always the most reliable way to get results. Consumer behaviour change is tough, and takes years to be fully adopted.
So what can we do to deliver more immediate impact, aside from the obvious bans on plastic? The answer, in part, comes from the world’s community of smart start-ups, who are innovating to turn the tide on plastic waste that’s destroying our marine ecosystems.
These concepts will need continued investment, greater profile and significant corporate backing if they are to scale and succeed, and initiatives like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s $2m New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize will no doubt help.
These five innovators are getting us excited for good reason:
1. Skipping Rock Lab
Backed by the EU’s Climate KIC start-up acceleration programme, this London-based business has a clear mission: to stop one billion plastic bottles reaching the ocean every year. And it plans to do this by replacing PET bottles commonly used to package soft drinks, with bottles made from natural materials extracted from plants and seaweed.
Its first product is called Ooho which uses material said to be cheaper than plastic to package liquids including water, soft drinks, spirits and cosmetics.
2. Aronax Technologies
This Spanish start-up makes use of a magnetic additive that can be applied to material to create better air and moisture insulation – and, crucially, makes it easier to identify and separate packaging at the recycling stage.
The additive, which can protect sensitive products such as coffee and medical products, can be used in both recyclable and compostable plastics, such as in toothpaste tubes and food and drink pouches.
In the UK, we throw away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year and less than 1% are recycled. This US-based start-up aims to stop the rot. It is currently trialling its disposable paper coffee cup in New York stores. The cup is made using an origami-like technique that entirely removes the need for a plastic lid. The material is 100% compostable too.
This Indonesian start-up has come up with an innovative way to create food wrappings and sachets. Made from a seaweed-based material, they can be eaten or simply dissolved in water. It has a two-year shelf life without the need of a preservative, and the material, which is fill of vitamins and minerals, can even be customised to give a specific taste, colour or to contain a brand logo.
5. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
As one of the top research and technology organisations in Europe, it is no surprise VTT has targeted packaging as an area of focus to reduce impact. As such, its team has come up with a compostable multi-layer material using agricultural and forestry by-products. It’s early days for the technology, but it could be used for stand-up food pouches for products like muesli, nuts, dried fruit and rice.
Victoria Page (Victoria Page Communications) and Tom Idle (Narrative Matters) are working with a number of organisations to help them understand the dangers and opportunities of plastics, and how to take a positive position through developing business strategy, communications and storytelling. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.