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Do we need to reinvent the plastic bottle?

Last week I attended an event at Chatham House called 'Reinventing The Plastic Bottle' which featured a variety of well-known stakeholders in the plastics debate including Ecover, Hubbub, Polymateria, Novamontand Skipping Rocks lab.  

The event was a natural reaction to the recent attention given to plastics.  I’ve frequently spoken of, and continued to read the words, “Blue Planet 2” throughout the media coverage on waste in recent months. It’s safe to say this beautiful and beloved BBC nature programme has provoked an emotion which has stirred our clients and the industry at large. 

So, what would we suggest at Paper Round HQ?

First and foremost, reduce where possible. I recently chaired a workshop on this subject, where we ask, ‘Why do we use single use plastics’? Overwhelmingly top of the list was ‘convenience’. You don’t need a straw in your drink and you can reuse your bag, but it just takes a little more effort and a little change to your normal habbits. A quote from the explorer Robert Swan that has stuck with me is “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it” …. we can all be a bit guilty of thinking that it doesn’t matter, but all these little things do add up. 

Reuse is also super important. At the event, Ecover spoke about how caps could last up to 50 uses of their bottles, and that they’d introduced a “refill” option for their product.  It’s currently being trialled in wholefood stores and it would be great to see this rolled out into our local supermarkets. 

An interesting alternative to plastics could also come from the Skipping Rocks lab – the whizz kids here have created an edible packaging material from seaweed that reflects the shelf life of the food inside it. They’re currently working with Just Eat to look at rolling this out with takeaway sachets. 

But, what about when you have to use single use plastic? 

It might sound unpopular, but here we would recommend you use plastics… recycle plastics… and then use recycled plastics.
To put this into the world context, some facts:

  • 90% of plastics in the ocean come from land-based sources. Between 4-12 million tonnes comes from mismanaged waste within 50km of the coast, of which more than just 50% comes from just 5 east Asian countries. 
  • Another 400,000-4m tonnes comes via rivers with more than 90% of that from 10 major rivers in Asia. 

A major reason behind these plastics leaking out, is that the infrastructure to recycle plastics doesn’t exist in these countries, and the material itself has no value and is therefore deemed replaceable. 

The UK and EU has this infrastructure to recycle plastics, and the channels to do so are well established. 

Plastic is fortunate in that it’s had 80 years of research and development, and so it’s incredibly good at what it does. At present it’s vital in hospitals and fundamental in extending the shelf life of food that would otherwise go to waste. Conversely, it takes 800 years to degrade, and is killing our environment.

Polymateria, spoke about creating plastics that could naturally biodegrade in a natural environment, and finding bacteria that could eat plastics without any externalities. Initiatives like this, and Skipping Rock’s seaweed packaging, could really benefit from 80 years of investment as well. 

With these innovations in mind, the end game should be to make single use plastics more intelligent through better design to ensure these products can be used without any damage to the environment. 

Until we reach that point, we would recommend that by valuing the plastics that already exist and recycling them (remembering also to keep them clean), you will help keep these materials within the circular economy and strengthen the existing recycling infrastructure, whilst doing your bit to save the planet.  

Rebecca Maskrey

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