There’s something in the air. Or, should we say, the ocean. Joining what The New York Times called “a growing global movement,” the Canadian government recently announced it would be tackling the global pollution crisis with bans on single-use plastics. The big question is whether that strategy will trigger the teamwork needed to get the best results.
The details of the Canadian plan remain to be seen, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would follow the lead of the European Union with their vote to ban items, such as plastic cutlery and cotton-swab sticks, that often end up littered in oceans and waterways.
With a goal of improving the current 10% “at best” estimate for plastics recycled in Canada, any bans could start at soon as 2021. A key step in that direction will have to be input from manufacturers, retailers, all levels of government and the public—to capture all the factors for success.
Going green, in the grey
Government action is an important and largely missing ingredient in the effort against plastic pollution. Banning certain types of single-use plastic can be a way to prevent pollution at the source.
However, we must keep in mind that, despite the current systems of thinking regarding the most environmentally and economically preferable ways to manage resources, we need to pay attention to the grey areas and see the full range of potential impacts.
Hindsight is 20/20, which can explain our experience with disposability and single-use in the first place. Manufacturers didn’t advertise the virtues of disposability to fool the public into polluting and littering, but they focused on how this new wave of consumption might make life easier; today, in the light of the past, the effects of a narrow focus on these benefits are plain.
We need to take the same big-picture thinking to today’s environmental initiatives of product bans, regulations on packaging design, even recycling, as we need to consider their current impacts and the potential for success in the long-term. We need to be alert to the reality that while consumers care about the planet and their health, they have gotten used to the convenience, price point, and ease offered by lightweight, single-use items.
We know the consumers care and report being willing to pay or switch brands for those that offer accessible, actionable solutions. A study from Dalhousie University, “The Single-Use Plastics Dilemma: Perceptions and Possible Solutions,” reveals current and emerging generations of Canadian consumers are mindful of the need for greener products; the same study reports one out of every two Canadians actively shop for food in non-plastic packaging.
However, we also know many consumers are focused on price. Interestingly, 71.8% of respondents reported that in the event single-use plastic bans are enacted, they’d want a discount, incentive or rebate for supporting alternative solutions. It shows the need to meet people where they are, offer them the virtues of convenience and functionality they have become accustomed to, and make it more worth their while.
Plant-based plastics are one option that consumers are excited about. The consumer behavior study showed 37.7% of respondents would be willing to pay more for an item with biodegradable packaging, which is usually plant-based; this percentage grew to 46.6% for those born after 1994.
Consumers connect with the concept of compostable plastics made from plants that should break down in composting facilities, or better still, the natural environment. , as it addresses our dependence on petroleum and concerns of further contributing to landfills or ocean pollution. But those expectations may mean a grey area for “green” plastic, as not all of these materials are created equal.
Breaking down compostability
The compostability of plant-based plastics is akin to the recyclability claims for petroleum-based plastics. Everything doesn’t break down in every setting. In the case of compostable plant-based plastics, most require processing in an industrial composting facility to get the mix of the right temperatures and moisture levels to break down as quickly as possible.
Many won’t cycle down in your backyard pile, let alone the ocean or in a landfill. The good news is the number of composting facilities in North America is growing, particularly as governments push for food waste diversion away from landfills and incinerators.
One of the big challenges centers on “biodegradable” claims. Many composters report that most so-called biodegradable plastics don’t break down into nutrient-rich material as, say, food scraps or yard clippings, which have a wide range of micro- and macronutrients as well as a living ecosystem of bacteria and other microbes. There is growing pressure to ban “biodegradable” claims completely because they are seen as misleading for consumers.
What producers can do is ensure new materials are in line with the system as it is currently. Club Coffee, a major Canadian coffee company, created the world’s first BPI Certified coffee pod for the most common brewers in North America. Unlike the traditional plastic pod, their pods break down in as little as five weeks in facilities designed to produce high-quality compost. A big reason is the pods include the skins of roasted coffee beans, turning what was a waste byproduct into a key ingredient for compostability.
The PURPOD100TM meets ASTM International’s Standard D6868 for compostability and required quite a bit of lab testing, and transparency around ingredients and production. The company has worked to ensure that marketing and advertising materials are accurate and not misleading.
Club Coffee has worked closely with leaders like the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, which brings together major U.S. composting operators to test products to make sure they really deliver the composting results that consumers expect and that operators need. The company also works with the Compost Council of Canada.
The result of taking into account the inputs of all stakeholders? Consumers value the coffee, convenience, and compostability; retailers get the positives of a more sustainable, premium product; composters have a product that works in their systems; and Club Coffee enjoys brand affinity.
Where the private sector here is stepping up to solve for single-use plastic on its own, governments can drive change by subsidizing research and incentivizing environmentally preferable uses of materials to ease the financial risks.
As with recycling, supporting the expansion of the composting network will be an important step forward. According to a study by Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, composting could aid topsoil quality and reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators in the U.S. by at least 30 percent.
Get in the ‘Loop’
Exploring alternatives to conventional plastics is one valuable solution as are single-use plastics bans. Another way forward is to reduce waste at the source through reduction and preventing the need to dispose. To get there, consumers need the alternatives that businesses are in a position to provide.
TerraCycle’s new circular shopping platform Loop currently features durable versions of goods previously housed in single-use packaging. The products are offered in a combination of glass, stainless steel, aluminum, and engineered plastics designed to last up to 100 uses; when they do wear out, they are processed to cycle the value of the material continuously.
Offering trusted brands in upgraded containers, consumers enjoy products they love while eliminating disposable packaging. Delivered to one’s door, a modern version of the milkman model of yore, the Loop Tote doesn’t use bubble wrap, air packs, plastic foam, or cardboard boxes, scrapping e-commerce excess.
Loop partners with retailers to bring reusable packaging into stores, making it easy for consumers to make the switch. In the U.S., the founding partners are Walgreens and Kroger, Europe has Carrefour, and Canada’s largest food and pharmacy retailer Loblaw recently announced it would launch the platform early-2020. Executive Chairman Galen Weston said, “Our industry is part of the problem, and we can be part of the solution.”
Buying into solutions for single-use plastics
The state of the recycling industry around the globe is fragmented, as are the needs of each region, but the world’s problems with plastic pollution are the same. While improvements are made by governments, there is a strong demand for authentically “eco-friendly” plastics and durable alternatives.
Consumers hold more power in this aspect than they know. If we demand less disposability and more systems-thinking, businesses will push suppliers, vendors, peers, and stakeholders for better materials and models for waste reduction, and profit, in the face of many challenges.
Thus, the most important shift toward solutions for single-use plastic waste is a collaboration with valued experts. Businesses can close the loop by sharing learnings, taking responsibility, and inspiring others to start their circular economy journey.
All players on the supply chain are accountable for the life cycle of goods, and exploring bold alternatives that create value from every angle are the ones that will stick.
Teamwork pushes bold initiatives through.