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17 May 2019

Solving the Plastics Problem: Part 2

In our last entry, we discussed which materials are the frontrunners to replace plastic as a packaging material. But, why have ocean plastics recently become such a colossal issue, with a surge in media and consumer attention?

The culmination of years of momentum, including research by leading universities and commercial organisations, means there is a growing voice lauding the benefits of using sustainable materials for businesses, shifting away from a previous focus on the prohibitive expense of these alternative methods.

Now, publications the likes of the Harvard Business Review herald sustainability as “a mother lode of organizational and technological innovations that yield both bottom-line and top-line returns. Becoming environment-friendly lowers costs because companies end up reducing the inputs they use.”

It is also emerging that eco-friendly packaging is:

·         Easier to process, thus reducing labor and material costs from waste

·         Durable, reducing the chances for goods being damaged during their lifecycle

·         Lighter, which makes distribution cheaper and more efficient

·         Less expensive to move and dispose of because it’s recyclable and, in some applications, reuseable and/or compostable.

According to Stanford University, one tonne of recycled plastic saves 5,774 kWh of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTUs of energy, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space.

Meanwhile, in the public consciousness, programmes such as Blue Planet have brought bold colour and a compelling narrative to the devastation of marine habitats and coral reefs. The “Attenborough Effect” is in turn helping to create a new and important variable in how brands promote themselves and position their products in crowded instore and online marketplaces.

The momentum is building further as large-scale corporations adopt new sustainability targets and build them into their social responsibility agendas, and these are usually displayed on their websites for the reference of consumers.

Research has indicated that 73% of millennials are willing to spend more on sustainable goods, while 66% of general consumers would make the same choice.

Similarly, 21 percent of respondents would “actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer on their packaging and in their marketing” while 78 percent of American consumers claimed that “they feel better when they buy products that are sustainably produced.”

The companies making pledges...

McDonalds has committed to using completely renewable, recycled packaging by 2025.  Deliveroo has been trialling an opt-in button for plastic cutlery as well as an e-bike scheme. Iceland has been leading the way on be packaging change, vowing to use completely plastic-free packaging on private brand items by the end of 2023. Co-op, Waitrose and Nestle have made similar environmental commitments. And largely these have to do with packaging.

Which brands are doing it right?

Through her research, one of our designers Charlotte, based in our Nottingham studio has compiled a list of brands that are making waves in the sustainability game. In addition to Kevin Murphy, which featured in our last blog entry, she notes the following:

Carlsberg. The brand is replacing plastic ring can holders with recyclable glue which claims to reduce the amount of plastic used in traditional multi-packs by as much as 75%.

Pela Case. Founded by Jeremy Long, Pela Case offers a phone case made from a biodegradable material called Flextastic, a combination of flaw straw waste and biopolymers.

Just Water. With bottles made mostly of paper and plant-derived plastics Just Water bottles are 100% recyclable. Plus Just’s bottles start off flat, taking 1/13th the amount of space to transport compared with a conventional container.

Floral street. A London-based fragrance brand, it packages each fragrance inside a pulp carton with an eye-pleasing embossed lid, all made from recyclable and biodegradable paper packaging, held together with a reusable brightly coloured band. The company is also committed to using lower-energy delivery methods.

Where do we go from here?

As we’ve always said, packaging IS powerful. And since 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage and in production, concentrating on post-use recycling is not going to prove an effective long-term solution. Packaging affects the entire supply chain, starting with the material producer to the converter, moving on to the brand owner and retailer, and finally to the waste and recycling organisations. And then cycle starts again with the material supplier.

Experts agree there are considerations that will give manufacturers pause when they seek to overhaul their supply chain. For example, some so-called sustainable and recyclable materials, such as biodegradable and bioderived plastics, which packagers may look to as a means to transition them away from fossil fuel-based ones, are not in fact widely recycled, but instead collected as general waste. Other problems arise in the UK and other countries in which waste collection and recycling is not co-ordinated centrally, but by local authorities, creating inconsistencies and hindering closed-loop recycling of materials.

In answer to this problem, Unilever in Australia recently called for standardisation of the waste management laws and regulations across three tiers of government, after it was concluded that differing recycling policies were slowing down progress in sustainability.

Using recycled and new materials are also, on average, more expensive than virgin ones, as Dominic Cakebread, director of consulting for packaging at Global Data, recently told Raconteur. He says: “Their cost is almost always higher because they don’t have the same scale of production, and additional research and development investment is needed to change the machinery line.”

The cost implications, he adds, involve an initial investment, however when volume increases and the original investment can be recovered.

What’s happening at Equator Design?

One of our design team, the talented Charlotte, based in Nottingham, believes it’s imperative to consider the reusability and recyclability of a product and its packaging in the design phase. Begin by designing products with recycling in mind and consider using upcycled or waste materials. Avoid using excess packaging and minimise empty space.

In terms of sustainable materials, choose long-lasting materials which use lower amounts of energy to produce, and wherever possible look for suppliers that use renewable energy. In your materials selection, avoid chemicals that may harm the environment, and where possible use natural inks and dyes. Also, use FSC-certified paper.

Charlotte has used these points in her design project for a new fragrance. Using a glass bottle, and recycled and recyclable materials for the reusable outer packaging, her suminagashi design incorporates natural inks. The packaging is printed with a story highlighting the importance of buying eco-friendly products, in order to inform and educate buyers on the issues relating to ocean pollution.