Reuse, recycle… return?
Each year, we produce more than 300 million tonnes of plastics, half of which is thrown away after a single use. While population growth has a large part to play in this increasing amount of waste, the full reason for it is more complex. Urbanisation has drawn people to cities, where heavily packaged, fast moving consumer goods are part of modern culture. Only one third of the millions of tonnes of plastics we create and use are disposable, and a meagre nine per cent of the world’s plastics are recycled. We need an alternative system, but how (and by whom) can it be achieved?
Plastic is dead, long live plastic (alternatives)
If we do have to say goodbye to petrochemical plastics, there are a host of alternatives that could be used in its place. They range anywhere from naturally produced polyesters to a keratin based material made from chicken feathers. These options have been around for years – a bioplastic made from milk protein, for instance, was developed in 1880. Then of course there are the obvious replacements like glass and sustainable wood. So why are manufacturers still producing petrochemical plastics? Much of it falls down to legacy systems that haven’t evolved to cope with new materials. And, in many cases, the alternatives simply aren’t good enough. For example, only 50 per cent of plastics made from renewable plant sources are biodegradable. Businesses may find themselves questioning the sense in switching to a bioplastic that is more costly to produce, and still harmful to the environment.
That being said, major companies are taking steps to phase out single use plastics. The LEGO Group, for example, set up the LEGO Sustainable Materials Centre in 2015 to search for greener alternatives to the plastic they use in their products. By 2030, the company hopes that all of its products will be made using sustainable alternatives. Likewise, IKEA has stated that it will remove all single use plastic products from its global range by 2020. Alongside the big corporations, various startups are tackling the struggle for sustainability. Cup Club, a returnable cup ecosystem, is one of them. Cup Club was set up by architect and environmentalist Safia Qureshi in 2015 to give people the convenience of takeaway without throwaway. The company provides takeaway packaging for hot and cold drinks that, once used, is left at a drop point and cleaned for reuse. The initial target areas are office spaces, educational facilities and retail, but the scheme would also be well suited to festivals and other events.
“It’s basically packaging as a service, designed for a new application,” explains Qureshi. We serve the coffee industry but also festivals. We provide all of the packaging and the cases as well as the delivery and collection. We provide each piece of packaging with RFID tags that speak to us through the cloud. We’re an IoT company in that respect so we have hardware connected to software platforms. We can then understand where a product is in our supply chain.”
This means that Cup Club can work closely with brands and retailers to understand and influence consumer behaviour. Each cup is designed for a minimum of 132 uses, giving it an extensive history log. Cup Club can find out who used their products, where they used them, and when.
“We are able to layer whole data sets of how people consume, where they buy, where they drop, and the frequency at which they buy. Companies can use that data,” says Qureshi. “We can also let customers know all kinds of data like how much water or CO2 they’ve saved – we use half the amount of CO2 that any other polystyrene, plastic, or ceramic cups do.”
Does Qureshi think that big businesses are doing enough? Last year, Cup Club won the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize set up by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. It was awarded by some of the biggest FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) brands including Nestlé, Coca Cola, Unilever, and M&S.
“Every now and then we have round table discussions on where everyone is and how we can help each other. These big brands have all made pledges for 2025 to go 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable,” says Qureshi. “Some trials are happening with Coca Cola at Reading Campus where you can refill your bottle but you have to fill a coke product into a branded reusable bottle. Unilever is using their foundry to bring in interesting startups to try and engage with new packaging opportunities. They’re all in a war to find as much recycled plastic content as possible, because that’s the next commodity.”
Changing infrastructure is complicated and costly, especially for incumbent businesses who have used the same processes for years and are reluctant to innovate.
“They’re just so big, decision making is so slow. I imagine just getting some important executives in a room takes months to organise. It will have to come from a market shift where consumers are just not buying their products anymore, or have gone to the extent of campaigning like joining the likes of Greenpeace. When it starts to strike their bottom line, they’ll move faster,” Qureshi notes.
Sooner or later, regulations will dictate that companies use a certain percentage of recyclable or recycled materials. As single use packaging and plastics are gradually phased out, companies like Cup Club will be in prime position to take advantage of new gaps in the market left by outdated plastics manufacturing. With that in mind, incumbents not only have a responsibility to feed sustainable development, but to create products and services that serve their stakeholders.
It’s time to join the club
So, there are plastic alternatives out there, and a number of big businesses are beginning to pursue them. That’s certainly good news, but it doesn’t address the tonnes of non recyclable and non biodegradable plastic debris that already litters the planet. How can we deal with the vast amounts of plastics that are already out there? According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), there are eight million tonnes of plastic in the ocean – and that’s on top of the vast landfill sites and rubbish heaps that are building up across the globe. The WEF itself has called for an international aid programme to improve waste management and recycling infrastructure.
The success of plastic alternatives largely rests on a new attitude towards plastic use. However, this will require the combined efforts of consumers, corporations and countries. Various businesses and governing bodies have made commitments to sustainable development, but only by working together will they procure the highest funding and reach the most people.
“We went into mass manufacturing, production and convenience culture not realising that it would, at some point, spiral out of control,” says Qureshi. “But that’s where innovation comes in. We saw it as an opportunity. Problems are also an opportunity to find new ways of addressing issues and new ways of engaging.”
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