How can retail brands and businesses cap plastic waste?

Lars Sandberg
10 July, 23

It’s time to turn the tide on plastic pollution. Research estimates that the world’s oceans are contaminated by 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and that in 2050, plastics in the sea will outweigh fish. 

The hard fact is that the packaging industry is responsible for most of the world’s plastic waste, producing more than 140 million tonnes per year. Sectors where products are quickly used and discarded, such as food & beverage and cosmetics, have the greatest potential to make a difference to this figure. 

Capping plastic production will address the source of the pollution problem, so what do retail brands and businesses need to know to inform their transition away from plastics and minimise their demand for these materials?

What factors make plastic alternatives suitable for use?

When exploring sustainable alternatives to plastics, retail brands and businesses should  consider each stage of a product’s lifecycle, from the raw materials, to how the product is used, what happens to the packaging afterwards and the added complexity of having multiple stakeholders involved. 

The benefits of bio-based materials: Ensuring plastic alternatives come from a renewable source is necessary for businesses to reduce their current reliance on limited, fossil-based resources and subsequently decrease their carbon footprint. This means bio-based materials are valuable for forming the basic components of packaging materials.

One example of a renewable, bio-based material is FSC-certified paper. The FSC system ensures the longevity of paper sources by verifying that forests are managed responsibly and can provide a continuous supply of materials. Another example with future potential is mycelium, also known as vegetative mushroom tissue, which can be grown rapidly in most agricultural waste to form natural polymers. 

Both paper-based and mycelium-based materials are versatile and can be manufactured into required shapes; this is important for making sure packaging made from plastic alternatives can be used as a like-for-like replacement to the initial product. 

Keeping a keen eye on quality: Sustainable packaging must be able to transport, protect, and preserve the product to the same standard as its plastic predecessors. This removes the risk of costs associated with damaged or unusable products. 

Maintaining quality is critical for ensuring consumers can use the product the same way they did before. Otherwise, businesses could face consumer resistance to change as Sainsbury’s did recently due to updating its own brand beef mince packaging. 

Despite the supermarket’s efforts to reduce its use of plastics, the critical response from its customer base demonstrates that retail businesses must meet consumer expectations for both usability and appearance when altering their packaging. As a result, the look, feel, and functionality of sustainable alternatives also need to be on par with plastics.  

The realities of recycling: To maximise the use of packaging materials and minimise the waste going to landfills — or worse still, the natural environment — retail businesses must account for the recyclability of plastic alternatives. 

Although some plastics are recyclable, they can only go through the recycling process 2-3 times before they can no longer be reused. This means that even when discarded plastics are managed optimally and don’t end up in nature, they have a short life cycle. Additionally, recycled plastics need to be enhanced with virgin material to maintain their usability. 

Selecting alternative materials that can be recycled more times than plastics will therefore be a more sustainable option. If alternatives can also be disposed of through existing waste streams, rather than relying on new and potentially more complex processes, then they can help to prevent mismanaged waste and reduce pollution as well. 

Which elements of packaging can be made from sustainable materials?

While products typically comprise of various components and materials, changing even one to be more sustainable can make a huge difference to plastic waste. Possible components retail businesses can consider updating include labels, caps, and protective packaging. 

Conventional labels are usually made from polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene, but recycled paper presents a more sustainable alternative. One potentially overlooked element of labels, however, is the adhesive used to secure them to products. If adhesive is non-recyclable and ends up in the recycling process, then it risks damaging the machinery used. As such, finding an alternative that can be managed within existing waste management systems is vital. 

Caps, meanwhile, are currently made from hard plastics such as high-density polyethylene or polypropylene. Paper-based cellulose fibres, on the other hand, can be formed to meet the same specifications as plastic caps. This bio-based material is both completely recyclable as a paper-based product and is also biodegradable, which reduces the negative impact of caps even in the worst-case scenario where they end up in the environment.

At present, polystyrene is often used for lightweight, protective elements of packaging that prevent damage and breakages. Although it is highly beneficial for businesses, it is derived from fossil-based resources and isn’t widely recyclable, thereby contributing to the plastic waste crisis. As an alternative, businesses can explore mycelium-based products, which come from a sustainable source and are biodegradable.

By evaluating every stage of a product’s life, retail brands and businesses can make genuinely impactful decisions to rapidly reduce their dependence on plastics. A number of innovative solutions are emerging to address each element of packaged products and together they will make the packaging industry more sustainable. Every step taken to reduce the use of plastics in packaging, regardless how “small”, will make a difference to the world’s plastic waste crisis, and ensuring change is viable long-term will benefit both businesses and the environment.

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