This is the fourth in a six-part series that explores five focus areas for businesses to address in plastic strategies to accelerate change and pursue the scale of innovation and collaboration necessary to address the plastics challenge. You can read the previous blogs from this series here.
Whilst it is not possible, or even desirable, to remove all plastics from society, innovative alternatives, when used appropriately, can play a significant role in reducing our plastic dependence.
As concerns about plastics have grown, there has been increased interest in the development of polymers with ‘greener’ credentials. This has led to some really exciting and ground-breaking innovative new materials, including – to name just a few – mushroom based packaging, edible seaweed capsules, and a plastic coating made from the exoskeletons of crabs. We are also seeing several companies – particularly start-ups – thinking beyond packaging entirely, looking to alternative business models that embrace novel delivery mechanisms.
The Rising Tide of Plastic Alternatives
We are seeing an increasing selection of ‘bio-based’ (made from plant material instead of petroleum), ‘biodegradable’ (broken down by biological organisms) and ‘compostable’ (broken down by home composting) plastics being presented as viable alternatives to conventional petroleum-based plastics. These alternatives provide potential advantages in terms of biodegradability and/or non-dependency on fossil fuels. However, amidst all the positive dialogue, there is intense debate and complexity – not least owing to the fact that just because a material is ‘biodegradable’ does not necessarily mean it is compostable and similarly, a bio-based plastic made from plants is not necessarily biodegradable.
Just because a material is biodegradable does not necessarily mean it is compostable and similarly, a bio-based plastic made from plants is not necessarily biodegradable.
In March this year, Lego re-ignited this debate when it announced it would start making toys from plant-based plastic in an effort to be more ‘sustainable.’ However, many were quick to question the environmental trade-offs associated with replacing a non-renewable fossil resource with a bio-based renewable one, bringing us back to the well-trodden debate surrounding biofuels and the intensive cultivation of arable land required for their production. What’s more, the origin of the raw materials used to manufacture the plastic implies nothing about its ability to degrade (or not) in the natural environment. Indeed, most bioplastics behave in a very similar way to plastics once they enter the environment (i.e. they disintegrate slowly, eventually breaking down into microplastics). Even when they are biodegradable or compostable (which some confusingly are), if they enter recycling works in large quantities, the material can contaminate the waste stream and impact on the quality of recycled plastics, deeming them unsaleable.
One company that is navigating the complex minefield of plastic alternatives is Snact – a UK-based producer of fruit-based snacks. As a brand that campaigns heavily on healthy eating and food waste (it uses surplus fruit that would otherwise end up as waste), sustainability is at the top of the company’s agenda. To ensure the product’s packaging followed the same ethos, Snact explored several different avenues before discovering Israeli packaging company Tipa, which produces compostable packaging made from multi-layer films of plant-based polymers. As well as meeting requirements in terms of food safety, shelf-life, flexibility and printability, the material decomposes like an orange within six months in a home compost bin. I had a conversation with one of Snact’s co-founders, Michael Minch Dixon, who stressed that companies need to “spend time thinking about the functionality needed from packaging as well as the system they are working within. If not careful, we can end up doing more harm than good.”
With so many nuances and trade-offs involved in switching to alternative plastics, it is important businesses consider the whole life cycle – ensuring the material in question is suitable not only for the application, but also end-of-life waste streams. Critically, innovation in material properties must be matched by innovation downstream.
I spoke with Conrad MacKerron, Senior Vice President at As You Sow, a non-profit leader in shareholder advocacy. He emphasised that innovation has to fit within the system and with what recyclers can deal with. “There are lots of innovative materials and moon-shot research projects out there, but businesses shouldn’t spend a million dollars on fancy new packaging without thinking about its end of life. For example, compostable packaging is a viable option for end-of-life, but are you doing business in areas that can compost your packaging? Less than 10% of the U.S. population has access to industrial-level composting. Are companies willing to pay towards providing the necessary infrastructure?”
“There are lots of innovative materials and moon-shot research projects out there, but businesses shouldn’t spend a million dollars on fancy new packaging without thinking about its end of life.”
– Conrad MacKerron, As You Sow
Rethinking Business Models, Not Just Plastic
Some companies are going one step further, starting to look beyond packaging design to new and innovative business models in a push to design a better system. CupClub, based in the UK, is just one example; it is replacing millions of disposable cups by providing reusable cups-as-a-service. As a returnable packaging subscription service, CupClub sells the reuse service to multiple stakeholders, meaning the system can scale and does not rely on brand loyalty. The concept combines a set of proven technological solutions to track individual cups and reward their users for being in the system.
The decisions and changes made to packaging will have impacts beyond just the look and feel of a new product on a shelf. Innovation, if done well, can result in many business benefits, including building deeper relationships with customers and other actors in the value chain, the realisation of new products and product categories, and increased brand loyalty. On the other hand, new solutions may also lead to unintended consequences such as increased food waste, safety implications and a growing demand for natural resources with associated social and environmental costs. While the wider adoption and appropriate use of alternatives to conventional petroleum-based plastics will open up new opportunities, taking a systemic view of packaging is critical to ensuring plastic and packaging innovation moves us towards more sustainable outcomes.
- Consider unintended environmental impacts: Switching from plastic to an alternative material, though addressing consumer concerns, may not necessarily be beneficial for the environment. Carefully consider the most appropriate material for the application in terms of functionality, end use and life cycle impacts.
- Take a truly systemic approach: Think about how changes to your products impact the wider system of collection and recycling.
- Talk to the waste industry: It’s no use embracing new compostable cups or biodegradable bottles if waste contractors are not willing to deal with them – test ideas with them early on.
- Communicate with consumers: If you are intending to put an alternative material on the market, consumers need to be made fully aware of the appropriate waste streams for the packaging at end of life.