The negative narrative surrounding plastic is a familiar one. The amount entering our oceans each year is predicted to triple to 29 million tonnes by 2040, with packaging the main culprit. Yet big brands including Asos and Innocent have stood by it as their material of choice, which raises the question: is it time to reconsider popular perceptions of plastic as the villain of the piece?
Asos has spread the message on social media that producing its plastic mailer bags – made of 90% recycled plastic – consumes roughly a quarter of the energy it takes to make the bags out of paper, and that switching to cardboard would increase its carbon emissions by half. Meanwhile, Innocent has produced detailed answers to FAQs about its packaging, concluding that, “at the moment, plastic is the most sustainable option for our bottles. It has a lower carbon footprint than glass and is much easier to recycle than cartons.”
The problem is not with plastic itself; it’s with the lack of widespread recycling systems, claims Innocent, which argues that the creation of a circular economy for packaging is the solution.
“Plastic has a number of qualities. It’s lightweight, durable and, most crucially, recyclable. As well as using recycled content in our bottles, we’re also advocating for higher recycling rates,” says Emilie Stephenson, who leads Innocent’s UK ‘Force for Good’ initiative.
She continues: “We’ve advocated across Europe by responding to government consultations and campaigning to introduce, or be allowed to join, deposit-return systems. We are actively supporting industry initiatives to increase recycling rates, use more recycled content, adopt reuse models and reduce plastic packaging volumes worldwide.”
Rethinking plastic as an existing resource
Plastic should be used “as an alternative material to almost anything”, declares Jolyon Bennett, founder and CEO of Juice, a provider of mobile phone accessories that uses recycled and recyclable plastic in its packaging.
“There are over 300 billion tonnes of plastic on Earth and it’s going to be around for up to 3,000 years, so let’s use science to find ways to reuse that mountain of plastic,” he says. “The negative perception of plastic is perpetrated by a global mass media that’s telling us not to make plastic – and I do get that. It’s the durability and longevity of the material that everyone is bemoaning, but actually it’s an incredible material.”
Bennett adds: “The campaign should be about not making more plastic and instead reusing the plastic we have. That would change perceptions. If everyone used recycled plastic and recycled that, production would drop by between 70% and 90% globally.”
Zoe Brimelow, brand director at packaging manufacturer Duo UK, agrees. Plastic, she says, has been subject to “years of persecution, so it will take a great deal of education and transparency to change this”.
Echoing Stephenson’s call for a campaign to increase the use of recycled plastic material and encourage more recycling, Brimelow cites the ‘Podback’ scheme as a case in point. Launched by Duo UK in collaboration with Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts UK, it provides customers with mailing bags so that they can easily return used plastic and aluminium coffee pods for recycling.
While using recycled plastic reduces dependence on finite virgin resources, there’s also value in sustainable materials such as GreenPE, a thermoplastic resin made from sugar cane, she says. “It’s carbon-negative, fully recyclable and can be blended with recycled plastic to make a hybrid solution. This is just one example of the options beyond using recycled plastics.”
Sugar-cane plastic is what Incognito, a provider of insect repellent, uses in its packaging, believing it to be more sustainable than recycled content. The company’s founder and CEO, Howard Carter says: “It’s a beginning-from-plant material, which is one of the easiest to recycle. Not all plastics are so easily recyclable.”
The problem with recycled plastic
This flaw is why many firms have decided to turn their backs on plastic. For instance, PharmaCare Europe recently chose compostable packaging for its new supplements brand, Vegan Life, over recycled plastic.
The company’s brand manager, Alicia Sharif, says: “Recycled plastic won’t naturally decompose like compostable packaging. This means that, if our packaging were to be littered, it wouldn’t have the same negative impact.”
She adds that its outer layer is made from reclaimed agricultural waste, which is the stubble that in most parts of the world would typically be burned after harvest. This residue can constitute 80% of a cereal crop.
Deodorant company Wild Cosmetics also wants to minimise its reliance on plastic. Wild’s refillable deodorant case is made largely of aluminium, while the refills themselves are packaged in compostable and recyclable bamboo pulp.
“Our vision is to help remove single-use plastic from daily personal care routines,” says the firm’s co-founder and CEO, Freddy Ward. “While a typical plastic deodorant pack has a lifespan of more than 400 years, a Wild refill will compost fully within six months and biodegrade within a year.”
Yet there is a crucial element in the mechanism of Wild’s deodorant case: recycled plastic – and Ward acknowledges the benefits of its quality, durability and mouldability. He and fellow co-founder Charlie Bowes-Lyon have investigated sustainable packaging options such as PLA, a polyester that’s biodegradable and produces fewer emissions in production than traditional plastic.
But there’s more to it than that, as he explains: “Even though the likes of PLA claim to be compostable, in reality this process will still take more than 50 years, and only then under certain conditions. So using recycled plastic helped us to build a durable product, while minimising the need to bring more plastic on to our Earth.”
Ward remains open-minded about considering options beyond the materials that Wild currently uses to enhance his company’s sustainable credentials. But, he says, they must be able to work for the lifetime of the case and perform as well as the existing components. Those, perhaps, are the points that may yet improve plastic’s reputation.