Hundreds of companies crack down on plastic from fast fashion to supermarkets and beyond

Strawberries in a plastic box
ShutterstockKomsan Loonprom

One of the many fascinating aspects of the war on plastics is the way in which it provides a near perfect case study for how change ebbs and flows through an organization. The pattern will be familiar to many who work in the sustainability space. First an issue grabs the headlines and sparks a public outcry; then corporate leaders rush to respond with various pledges and programs, instructing their teams to resolve the problem; those teams quickly discover the problem is significantly more complicated than it appears; and then, often years later, meaningful reforms start to filter through. As the world is seeing with the net zero transition, the deforestation crisis and, of course, the avalanche of plastic waste, the final part of the journey is the hardest. Delivering on those initial pledges can take decades.

Nearly 2.5 years on from "Blue Planet 2's" capturing the zeitgeist, the war on plastics may have lost some of its headline-grabbing novelty, but its impact is still being felt. 

Most notably, the Environment Bill got its second reading Feb. 26, complete with plans to extend producer responsibilities to an array of plastic packaging and introduce new charges on single use plastics, building on the success of the plastic bag levy and the outright bans on microbeads and plastic straws. Regardless of the nature of any eventual trade deal with Brussels, the new U.K. plastics policy regime will work in tandem with the EU's Single-Use Plastics Directive, set to outlaw a host of single use plastic items by 2021.

Combined with continuing pressure from the public, these policy levers are shaping business practices. The flurry of plastic-related announcements this week is case in point. Taken on their own, none of the various new product and policy announcements will halt the tide of plastic waste, but as a whole they show how corporate and consumer behaviors are evolving alongside emerging new technologies.

First up, Network Rail provided an update revealing that something as simple as providing water fountains at major stations has helped to save 3 million plastic water bottles from landfill. The company said it had completed the rollout that has seen fountains installed at all 20 Network Rail managed stations across the United Kingdom, while a new app from campaign group City to the Sea helps inform passengers where they can refill.

The news was welcomed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who hailed the campaign as "a massive success, ensuring passengers stay hydrated, save money and we all save the planet one water bottle at a time." "People across the country start and finish their days on our railways and encouraging water refills both avoids waste and means that, as a nation, we won't be running on empty," he added.

Meanwhile, barely a day passes at the moment without a new supermarket initiative to curb plastic waste, with retail giants Lidl and Aldi going head to head with their latest plans.

Lidl announced Feb. 24 it has become the first supermarket to use ocean bound plastics collected from South East Asia to make plastic packaging that will be rolled out across 13 fresh fish products. The initiative is expected to reuse over 60 tonnes of plastic each year that is otherwise destined for the oceans.

The company said it initially will roll out the packaging from March 30 across fresh fish products in partnership with supplier Copernus, representing more than 50 percent of the discounter's fish lines and including white fish and salmon. The intention is to then to expand the roll out across the company's entire fresh fish range across the course of 2020 while also exploring other uses for the packaging across other product lines.

The packaging is made from 80 percent recycled content and a minimum of 30 percent of the weight of the tray is made up of ocean-bound plastic. It also has been designed so as to be widely recycled in the U.K., Lidl said.

"By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, according to data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation," said Lidl GB's head of corporate social responsibility, Georgina Hall. "The majority of ocean plastic enters the sea from 10 main entry points, eight of which are in Asia. Countries like those in South East Asia lack the waste management infrastructure to manage this problem, which is often overwhelmed by population growth or tourism. We are proud to be the first U.K. supermarket introducing packaging incorporating plastic that would have otherwise ended up in the ocean, helping to tackle the problem directly as part of our commitment to prevent plastics ending up as waste."

At the same time, Aldi announced it was looking to save 34 million pieces of single use plastic a year through the simple removal of plastic lids from its own-label fresh cream and ready-to-drink coffee products. In addition, the company will trial the removal of plastic lids from its large Greek-style flavoured yogurt pots, which could eliminate a further 34 million pieces of plastic. "We are committed to cutting the amount of plastic that Aldi and our customers use, particularly unnecessary, single-use plastic like secondary lids," said Fritz Walleczek, managing director of corporate responsibility at Aldi. "Every step like this brings us closer to our target of reducing the amount of plastic we use in packaging by 25 percent."

The moves highlight both the huge potential to phase out the myriad examples of single use plastics that are still widespread, as well as the need to trial changes to guard against unintended consequences as increased food waste and the complex supply chain partnerships that are required to access recyclable materials and establish circular resource flows.

Another example was provided late last month as Boots announced it will turn 86,000 plastic bottles into a range of eco-friendly tights. Available on Boots.com and set to launch in select stores this month, the range sees around four plastic bottles shredded into micro-particles, melted down and spun into yarn, which is then knitted to produce tights.

These various new products and behaviors are accompanied by more cutting-edge technology and business model innovations. For example, recycling service provider First Mile announced that it has teamed up with the Fashion for Good campaign to conduct a new pilot scheme to tackle plastic polybag waste across the fashion industry. The new Polybag Collection Scheme Pilot will see First Mile collecting and recycling plastic polybags from retail stores in central London.

It is estimated that 180 billion polybags are produced globally every year, but the use of hard to recycle plastic film in a wide variety of colors means many end up in landfill or being broken down into lower value materials. The new three-month pilot aims to test the ability to develop scalable recycling infrastructure in one key city region to enable the collection and recycling of garment polybags.

"The spotlight has been well and truly focused on the sustainability of the fashion industry in recent months, and this is an area where recycling can make a massive difference," said First Mile founder and CEO Bruce Bratley. "There's an incredible amount of plastic polybag packaging waste that isn't currently recycled and will often end up in landfill or being incinerated. As we all strive towards achieving an efficient circular economy, maximizing the recycling of these polybags is a hugely positive move."

Meanwhile, the booming takeaway industry is working to tackle its plastic waste, with Just Eat expanding on its trial of biodegradable sauce sachets by teaming up sustainable materials specialist to pilot the use of the world's first seaweed-lined takeaway box.

The companies estimated that 500 million plastic takeaway boxes are used across the U.K. takeaway industry each year, and even when they are reused multiple times, they often end up in landfill. As such, a new London trial at three restaurants aims to test the viability of Notpla's new box, which is fully recyclable and can decompose in four weeks in a home compost. Lined with seaweed, the cardboard container is made from tree and grass pulp with no synthetic additives, but also has been designed to be water-resistant and greaseproof.

"Over half a billion plastic boxes are used across the takeaway industry every year and we know that eventually, they end up in landfill," said Andrew Kenny, Just Eat UK managing director. "This is why, we've been working closely with Notpla to create an innovative alternative that is recyclable, home-compostable and which degrades in a matter of weeks. We're delighted to bring this new takeaway box to trial and look forward to assessing the results with the aim to roll these boxes out across the U.K. and our other markets, so that customers across the globe can enjoy their favorite takeaways more sustainably."

The project builds on Just Eat and Notpla's existing partnership, which has been piloting the use of seaweed-based sauce sachets with a variety of restaurants and has stopped over 46,000 plastic sachets from entering customer homes.

The new trial also comes as plastic sachet waste was thrust into the spotlight with the launch of a new campaign calling on the government to "sack the sachet" and introduce new policy measures to crack down on plastic sachets.

The message for all businesses from this latest flurry of activity is clear. The initial buzz around plastic waste may have receded a little, but its impact is still being felt in myriad and at times unpredictable ways. A genuinely circular economy remains a still distant goal, but those businesses that hoped to keep their heads down and cling to wasteful practices risk being publicly put to shame by the many organizations that are experimenting with more sustainable and resource efficient approaches. It will take time, but expect plenty more announcements as ever more corporates move through the cycle of target-setting, trials and delivery. A new normal is slowly taking shape.

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