Reducing the world’s dependency on plastic and the development of 100% sustainable alternatives are issues that are very close to Bio-Based World News’ heart. We’ve covered it a lot recently – from the astonishing rise of publicity following the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, which showed how plastic had reached even the dark depths of the world’s oceans, and Evian and Suntory’s development of 100% sustainable plastic bottles, to Unilever’s news that it is to overhaul its packaging as part of a plan to replace it with compostable alternatives by 2025. In fact, so big is our commitment to reporting on the more responsible use of plastic that the topic has even made its mark on our sister title, SmartRail World, which reported last week that Eurostar was aiming to reduce its consumption of plastic by 50% by 2020.
It’s clear the will is there to fight the spread of waste plastic, but what of the practical considerations that will develop the best-laid plans into a reality? Here, Dave Songer explores five of the technologies, campaigns and the approaches taken by countries already making big inroads, clearly illustrating that where there’s a will, there most certainly is a way.
Incentivising responsible use
Before 100% sustainable plastic which breaks down naturally and leaves no trace is here there is a growing feeling there should be an attitude change towards single-use plastic – one where taking your own reusable plastic bottle or cup every time you leave the home becomes the norm.
Taking inspiration from Denmark, which in 2003 intorduced a retailer tax on single-use plastic bags, and Mexico which from 2010 fined retailers from giving out bags at all, the UK government announced late last year of its intention to hardwire such a situation into consumers’ minds, with a proposed tax on all single-use plastics including packaging, takeaway boxes and plastic bottles. How that policy would be applied is unclear, but the government will no doubt hope that it echoes the success of the 5p charge on plastic bags that was enshrined into UK law in October 2015. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, reported a year since the plastic bag levy plastic bag was adopted that the use of plastic bags had dropped by a massive 85%.
Following Norway’s example
As with so many things in industry, collaboration is a proven way of achieving good results; sharing knowledge and learning from each other’s mistakes can really improve the chances of success. That’s certainly the case in the bio-based industry, exemplified recently by Genomatica and Aquafil’s partnership to create 100% sustainable nylon.
Collaborative approaches such as those don’t just extend to companies, there are countries taking a progressive approach to the green agenda which could help inform future policies in other parts of the world. Take Norway for instance, which recycles a staggering 97% of its plastic bottles thanks to an incentive-based scheme that pays the recycler at specially-adapted machines which read barcodes on bottles to produce a coupon that can be later redeemed for cash. So good is the scheme that it appears likely it will also be adopted in Hong Kong to put a stop to the existing practice of shipping unwanted recyclables to landfills on the Chinese mainland.
No matter how big the appetite among the public for recycling, without a commitment from the companies producing and supplying the products progress is likely to be challenging. Back in the UK, the Iceland chain of supermarkets announced in January that it would be completely remove the use of plastic in all of its own-brand products by 2023, an initiative that would help reverse the worrying statistic revealed by Greenpeace that UK supermarkets generate one million tonnes of plastic every year. Despite having more than 800 stores, Iceland has just a 2.2% share of the UK food market but it’s hoped that the drive from the supermarket chain will kick-start its much larger competitors, such as Sainsbury’s and Tesco, to also make similar pledges.
“The onus is on retailers to take a stand and deliver meaningful change. Other supermarkets, and the retail industry as a whole, should follow suit and offer similar commitments during 2018,” said Iceland managing director, Richard Walker.
Global leaders in this area including Lego, Procter & Gamble, Patagonia and IKEA will be presenting at World Bio Markets 2018, taking place in Amsterdam 20th-22nd March.
Even if a solution for a fully biodegradable plastic was in place today, there is still the huge matter of recycling all the plastic already in existence. Around 480bn plastic bottles were sold around the work in 2016, reported The BBC last year. That’s one million bottles a minute. There is hope, though, as there is an emerging technology currently being developed that chemically breaks down any plastic into basic chemicals that can then be used as a feedstock to make more bottles or even used as biofuel. Should it be successful it would remove the need for expensive and time-consuming sorting regimes: one of the main contributing factors towards low recycling rates.
“New materials enter the market slowly, and thus the biggest impact is in developing more efficient methods to recycle the plastics that are produced in large quantities today,” said Megan L. Robertson, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at University of Houston, in Science Daily.
Today, the challenge of gaining worldwide recognition and pushing an issue up the agenda can be achieved with relatively little effort through the use of social media and focused digital campaigns. If it’s timed right, pitched in the correct way and is about an issue that enough people care about a message can gain worldwide attention in days and even hours. A tactic (sometimes) used to great effect is the online petition, which can accrue thousands of signatories in seconds – an achievement made all the more easy owing to the ease with which people can make their voice heard.
The power of the internet has been leveraged to raise the issue of plastic waste, with eco-warriors Greenpeace – an organisation not averse to using the tactic – launched a campaign to encourage Coca-Cola to spearhead change. According to Greenpeace, Coca-Cola produces more than 110 billion single-use bottles and is in a great position to enact industry-wide action. In the campaign’s first week it received around 150,000 online signatures, a figure that in around three months grew to 500,000. Coca-Cola has said it is committed to reducing single-use waste and in October 2017 introduced a trial system at England’s Reading University using refillable bottles.