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03 May 2019

It’s a material world: How a multitude of advancements, not one miracle substrate, will solve the plastics problem

What do langoustine shells, nut shells, banana peels and plastic waste all have in common? They are all currently being developed for use as environmentally responsible packaging materials serving as an alternative to plastic.

Plastics overuse is currently the packaging industry’s most urgent dilemma, and one that many in the FMCG world are still reluctant to tackle. Why? Well, some producers and retailers see the elimination of plastics as an eventual goal – a problem to be solved in the decades to come. However, a growing number of consumers feel that the scale of plastics use has already reached a crisis point, as plastics become ubiquitous within our natural environments, a plague on our waterways and oceans, and take a devastating toll on marine mammals and fish alike.

In response to mounting public pressure, the UK government has made a commitment to eliminating plastic waste entirely – but not until its target year of 2042. Considering that x tonnes of plastics enter the ocean each day, for some that 23-year timeline is just not quick enough.

Leading the way on environmentally responsible packaging makes good business sense, too, since consumers are becoming more aware of their collective power and are keen to vote with their wallets.

Not only are those in the millennial generation increasingly swayed in their purchasing by responsible packaging, a recent study indicates that eight out of ten over 50s in the UK believe more should be done to introduce more environmentally friendly packaging materials, and 92% expressed a preference for carton over plastic.

To get on the right side of consumers of all ages, producers and retailers need to be one step ahead of the government, by investing in R&D and working with the packaging industry to develop alternative packaging materials.

The fine print here, however, is that one product will not emerge as a panacea for all companies. Plastic use has exploded because it is an ideal material for packaging in many ways – it was deemed lightweight, so it required less fuel to transport, and years ago many swapped glass bottles for plastic for this reason. Plastic is also incredibly flexible, and can be moulded into practically any kind of vessel to safely and effectively contain almost any kind of material (plus it is more resilient than materials like glass or cardboard). Also, plastics can be run, such as when used on a printer, at extremely high speeds and at high volume.

Human ingenuity WILL prevail, but as I said above, there needn’t be one material to take over from plastics. In fact, a number of companies are developing and implementing alternative packaging materials with serious environmental credentials. The inspiring initiatives of these companies will not be overlooked, as they will be publicly credited with leading the way on material science, and as a result achieve more of the market share, getting a worthy return on investment in the bargain. 

So, which materials are being developed to replace traditional plastics?

Langoustine shells. Up in Scotland, blue biotechnology company CuanTec has been quietly developing flexible anti-microbial and compostable bioplastic film, which is made from chitosan.

Chitosan is derived from a naturally occurring biopolymer extracted from marine and aquaculture waste including langoustine shells, which is then combined with other biopolymers and natural substances to form a substance that is effective as a packaging material but is not harmful to sea life.

Via an energy efficient, environmentally friendly process, a clear film is produced, which is free of any yellow tinge and possesses its own anti-microbial qualities helping to protect against pathogens and food spoilage organisms including E.coli, Salmonella, Vibrio, Listeria and lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and moulds.

The company has recently received an influx of R&D investment from Sky Ocean Ventures, while a number of recent awards are helping to raise the biopolymer’s profile in the UK and abroad. This material is one to keep your eye on. (Link: www.cuantec.com)

Nut shells. Since as early as 2010, European companies such as chocolatier Ferrero have been helping to subsidise R&D projects around paper alternatives made from nuts. While research on polymers derived from nut by-products including shells from hazelnuts, pistachios and cashew nuts is ongoing, there has been quite a bit of enthusiasm over the potential of nuts to help solve our waste problem. The intent is to use the nut by-product polymer to fill the mid-layer of the paper, which is usually filled by secondary fibers and wood pulp. If R&D teams can develop the desired material to work on a large scale and manufacture enough nut-based packaging to contain nut-containing chocolates, then it would constitute a packaging triumph. The project, in any case, highlights how companies are exploring the development of their own waste products in a way that is in line with the ideas of a circular economy in which products are reused and recycled and resources are utilised in a responsible manner.

Banana peel. Another waste material with potential is banana peel. And far from being a slippery material to harness, real progress is being made in developing it as a bioplastic. Widely lauded as a solution to conventional plastics overuse, bioplastics are natural biopolymers synthesized and catabolized by various organisms. In this case the bioplastic is arrived at via a simple process, which combines the core substance with Glycerol (also called glycerin), which is a simple polyol (sugar alcohol) compound. It is a colorless, odorless, viscous liquid that is sweet-tasting and non-toxic. This material, like other bioplastics, is being rigorously tested and developed for wide-scale use, watched with great interest by corporations and governments alike.           

Ocean plastic. With over 5 trillion pieces of plastics floating around in the world’s oceans, the solution may at first seem to be right under our noses. But there’s a huge snag, since sourcing ocean plastics is still relatively new and involves a complex supply chain, which begins with organising the trawler boats to transport the plastic to facilities where it can be treated and reprocessed. The whole process makes using ocean plastic around five times more expensive than virgin plastic. But there are companies taking the leap, and as with most endeavours, the more organisations that get on board, the most streamlined the process will become. One enterprise that has committed itself to using 100% ocean plastics is hair care co Kevin Murphy. While the company admits it has had to slightly raise its retail price, and has “eaten most of the costs” itself, it has distinguished itself as a brand that puts the environment on a par with its own financial growth, and will save more than 360 tonnes of plastic production each year – more, if its investment on behalf of the environment bears fruit.

What can we do?

Equator Senior Creative and Strategy Director Howard Wright said: “As an agency we are fully committed to downscaling the industry’s overdependence on plastics – first of all by minimising packaging waste. We are likewise watching with interest as substrates are developed and implemented, and we are keen to lead the way on utilising new methods and innovative materials as they become available. The issue is of huge importance – not just because clients and consumers are demanding it, but because action needs to be taken now to protect our natural environments for our children and for generations to come.”

The industry is at a turning point, adds Howard, and design agencies must consider a host of environmental considerations factors in each phase of the design process. “Designers must be proactive and take responsibility to think about the substrate, the ink, air space and more, whenever they are producing concepts for their clients. The relevant environmental considerations must be a factor in every step of the process from start to finish.”

In the next blog post, we’ll be looking at ways the design industry can collaborate with manufacturers to produce environmentally responsible packaging, from examining waste protocol to using packaging as a form of communication to educate consumers.