Naked products and take-back schemes: How are businesses designing their way out of single-use plastics?

edie looks at the trials and projects that have proved successful in combatting plastics waste

Brought to you in association with Nestlé, the Week is inspired by edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Hub – the content-driven campaign which supports sustainability and resource efficiency professionals on our collective mission to eliminate single-use plastics.

The Plastics Week is aimed at sustainability and resource efficiency professionals who are looking to make 2020 the year that they turn the tide on single-use plastics. It will include an array of exclusive interviews and blogs, insight reports, podcasts and a brand-new online event. 

With consumer and stakeholder pressures mounting, businesses are faced with constant reminders to deliver on public pledges to eliminate single-use operations over the next few years. The leaders have already forged ahead with trials and projects aimed at doing just that.

From an innovative use of materials, to shifting entire business models into the area of servitisation, these trends prove that there is a business appetite to combatting single-use plastics by rethinking current approaches to procurement and the circular economy.

Edible packaging

One of the main issues with single-use plastics is their lack of value, meaning they often aren’t collected for recycling. Instead of seeping into the natural environment, some businesses are looking at how one-use items of packaging can be dealt with in a sustainable manner, and sachets are being transformed.

With more than 480 billion single-use plastic drinking bottles and 11 billion plastic sachets sold globally each year, the food and drink industry is arguably at the epicentre of the global plastics problem. But businesses in this sector must weigh up numerous potential knock-on effects before phasing out plastic, such as their food waste output and the cost of their packaging.

One innovation in this space which has already achieved buy-in from several big-name businesses is the Ooho – an edible and compostable drinks sachet made from seaweed. Developed by packaging development company Skipping Rocks Lab and backed by funding from the Sky Ocean Ventures initiative, the product takes around six weeks to decompose in landfill.

Several businesses – including Lucozade, Selfridges and Just Eat – trialled Oohos for the first time in 2018. Selfridges has since made them a permanent fixture in the foodhall at their flagship London store, which banned plastic bottles in 2010.  

Paper-based packaging

Alternative materials have a clear role in combatting single-use plastics, but for metals and glass, debates still remain as to the carbon trade-offs of switching. Paper seems to be more popular with brands – provided it is sustainably sourced – and many are looking to innovate to improve the durability of paper-based packaging.

Unilever launched its first range of “plastic-free” ice lollies, under its Solero brand. The innovative packaging, used for five-packs of Solero Organic Peach, has built-in compartments that enable each lolly to be kept separate without a plastic wrapper. In order to minimise packaging damage and leakage, the outer cardboard box is coated in PE. PE-coated cardboard is accepted by most local authorities in kerbside collections.

Solero lollies housed in the new packaging are being sold exclusively through Ocado. Unilever will measure consumer attitudes to the new format in partnership with the online grocer, before deciding whether to apply it permanently to five-packs of Solero Organic Peach at all UK stores and to roll it out to other products.

More ambitious examples can be seen through the Paper Bottle Community, which has seen Coca-Cola, The Absolut Company and L’Oréal join brewer Carlsberg to scale-up paper-based solutions that replace or rival single-use plastic bottles.

Naked products

Some plastics packaging is essential for avoiding food waste, but for some food groups, the packaging is mainly cosmetic and for brand or advertising purposes. As a result, some businesses are looking at how they can unpack food and other commodities.

Waitrose & Partners, for example, has extended its ‘Unpacked’ offering of packaging-free, refillable products, following a successful trial of the concept at its Botley Road store in Oxford. The new offering saw the supermarket take more than 200 products out of their packaging – from fruit and vegetables, to grains, beer and wine.

Also included in the original trial were a ‘pick and mix’ counter for packaging-free frozen fruit and refill options for laundry detergent and washing-up liquid, as part of a partnership with Ecover. To complement these features, Waitrose & Partners began allowing shoppers to borrow a box in which to carry their groceries home, in a bid to discourage plastic bag use.

Waitrose & Partners has revealed that more than 7,000 customers have commented on the trial, called ‘Groceries Unpacked’, through its in-store feedback walls, website and social media.

Elsewhere, Health and beauty brand Lush opened its first plastic-free shop in the UK this week, following the success of its ‘naked’ stores in Germany and Italy. The shop, on Market Street in Manchester, will not sell any products in plastic packaging, in a bid to help consumers choose more sustainable alternatives.

Toiletries on offer will include traditional solid soap bars, bar versions of Lush’s most popular shampoos, conditioners, shower gels and body lotions and loose bath bombs. Customers will be encouraged to place these items into paper bags made with 100% recycled material, or reusable metal tins, before buying them.

Refills and take backs

Speaking of refills, more businesses are becoming a service provider, rather than a product seller, in a bid to cut back on plastics and strengthen consumer relations.

Evian began trials of a refillable in-home water appliance. Called the Evian re-new, the device consists of a rigid plastic base and a collapsible five-litre “bubble” container, which houses the product refill. The container is made of 100% recycled plastic and contains 66% less plastic by weight than a 1.5-litre Evian bottle.

Health and beauty retailer The Body Shop launched a multinational take-back scheme for its plastic packaging, after consumers voiced concerns that not all of the brand’s packaging is accepted by local authorities under kerbside recycling schemes.

The Body Shop is approaching the issue by including more recycled content in its packaging, designing for recyclability and offering its take-back scheme with TerraCycle – a system similar to those offered by the likes of GarnierL’Oreal and Colgate Palmolive.

Around 4.3 billion disposable menstrual products are believed to be disposed of in the UK every year, with the majority of these items either containing or housed in plastic, according to City to Sea.

An alternative to these products comes from London-based menstrual product brand DAME, which has created a plastic-free tampon and reusable applicator. The applicator is made from Sanipolymers – bio-based materials which purport to be antibacterial, anti-microbial and biodegradable. DAME products are currently sold in the UK only, through Waitrose & Partners, Boots and Content Beauty & Wellbeing stores, as well as on DAME’s own website.

Upcycling waste plastics

As businesses attempt to design their way out of single-use plastics, some have taken the responsibility – and realised the market opportunity – of removing the existing “plastics soup” from the oceans.

Home cleaning product manufacturer SC Johnson has developed the industry’s first plastic bottle made entirely from recycled ocean plastic for its Windex cleaning brand, while Coca-Cola has unveiled sample bottles consisting of 25% recycled marine plastics, as the company ramps up efforts to improve the recyclability and collection of its products in Western Europe.

The global fashion industry probably isn’t the first you’d think of in a discussion around plastics pollution, but of the 100 billion garments it produces every year, the majority are made with plastic-based fabric blends. Indeed, clothes, shoes and accessories to the value of £140m are believed to be landfilled every year.

Sportswear giant Adidas produced more than five million pairs of its Parley trainers in 2018, which contain 95% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics sourced from the ocean and beach clean-ups.

Last year, it planned to manufacture around 11 million pairs of the – an increase of more than 100%. The move comes after the company surpassed its 2016 target of selling one million pairs of the shoes one year early.

Elsewhere, French fashion-tech firm Petit Pli has developed expandable clothing for children, made using recycled plastic bottles. Given that children grow up to seven sizes in their first two years, the clothing could have a significant impact on the number of garments needed to clothe an infant over time. Petit Pli currently only sells online and makes its clothing sets in three colours.

Chemical recycling processes

According to studies by the Center of International Environmental Law (CIEL), the plastics industry is the fastest-growing source of industrial emissions, with 99% of the plastics market derived from fossil fuels. As a result, many businesses are realising the potential impact of creating new plastics from low-grade materials currently on the market.

Mars and Nestlé have teamed up with packaging solutions firm Citeo, energy giant Total and recycling technology provider Recycling Technologies to develop an industrial chemical recycling process for plastic packaging in France.

Supermarket giant Tesco has inked a deal with Recycling Technologies, which will see the retailer trial an innovative system that converts soft plastics back into oil.

Under the partnership, Tesco will encourage consumers to bring items which are often not collected in kerbside schemes by local authorities – including pet food pouches, carrier bags and crisp packets – to collection points across 10 of its stores across Swindon and Bristol.

The collected material will then be sent to Recycling Technologies, where it will be fed through the company’s RT7000 machines. The device heats fossil fuel-based plastic until its long-chain molecules crack into short-chain hydrocarbons, which are then treated to separate vapour and solids and to remove chemical contamination. The vapour is then cooled to produce the same solid oil material, called Plaxx, which can be incorporated into new plastic products.

Elsewhere, food and beverage giant Nestlé has partnered with the developer of Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) plastics innovation concept, in a bid to bring an emerging technology which restores recycled plastic streams to ‘near-virgin’ quality to market.

edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Week: How to get involved 

Running from 13-17 January, edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Week includes exclusive interviews, podcasts, reports, webinars and in-depth feature articles – all dedicated to turning the tide on single-use plastics. 

You can find a full list of the exclusive content which edie will be bringing you as part of the campaign, run in association with Nestle, by clicking here.

Matt Mace

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