It will come as no surprise that while walking on the beach on holiday I came across all sorts of pieces of plastic in the sand and surf. I remember back to my childhood, where there were only shells to collect the sand.
Looking at this issue more widely, the projections around plastic pollution are bleak. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, by weight. Not only is there a risk to marine life, but also potentially human health.
However, plastic is not a “bad” material, as it is prized because it is strong, lightweight and durable. These properties have made it an ideal candidate for the packaging, transportation and high-tech industries. The problem is that when plastic is released into the environment, the properties that it is valued for make it persistent, as it does not easily break down. Single-use plastics are one of the main drivers behind plastic waste pollution.
Why are we in this single-use plastics waste crisis?
There are four interlinked factors which have driven the environmental plastics crisis.
- Plastics Use: Global plastic consumption continues to increase, with the packaging industry using 35 percent of plastic produced in 2015. The amount of time plastics are in use varies by industry. It is estimated that plastic packaging is used for less than six months and accounts for nearly half of all plastic waste generated globally.
- Recyclability: Thermoplastics are possible to recycle but may not necessarily be recycled due to contamination (cling film), difficulties with sorting (polystyrene) or low market value.
- End-of-Life Management: Plastics are often sent to developing markets for processing and recycling. However, due to contamination, and in some instances lack of recycling technology, a proportion of this material may be disposed of as waste. This plastic waste often leaks into the environment. However, developing countries are starting to act. In June 2019, Malaysia returned five containers of plastic to Spain after it was found to be contaminated.
- Value: Waste plastic has a nominal value as a resource, when compared with other materials such as aluminum cans. There is a lack of financial incentives in terms of material value or taxes to promote plastics recycling.
Our World in Data shows that most of the plastic waste in 2015 was generated by the packaging sector, followed by textiles and consumer products. The challenge is stark, but supply chain professionals can use strategies to prevent plastic waste generation and help to educate consumers about recycling practices.
How can businesses respond to single-use plastic packaging?
The challenge for supply chain leaders is to institute response and prevention strategies to ensure that single-use plastics do not leak into the environment. What can supply chain leaders do to make a difference?
- Know What You Use: The first step is to understand what types of plastics are being used and the mechanism for disposal. This will allow for targets and reduction strategies to be put in place. Where changes to packaging are made, these should be rigorously tested to avoid unintended consequences.
For example, McDonald’s changed from plastic to paper straws, which caused consumer upset as some consumers felt that paper straw performance was inferior. The unintended consequence is that some consumers are using disposable coffee lids on their milkshakes.
- Offer New Products or Services: The second step is to work with brand management and business development teams to identify new products or services that can be offered to customers, which helps them become plastics free.
For example, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and other large brands are working with Loop to test a shopping system which relies on reusable and returnable packaging. Consumers purchase products from the Loop website, receive these in a returnable tote and return this packaging in the tote when they are finished using the products.
- Engage With Consumers: The third step is to proactively support changes in consumer behavior. This could be accomplished by offering recycling points in store, included recycling instructions on packaging or discounts where customers bring their own packaging.
For example, most coffee shops will offer customers a nominal discount if they bring their own reusable cup to the store.
We have not always had this dependence on single-use plastics. It is only in the last 50 years that plastic consumption has rapidly increased. Perhaps there is something we can learn from previous generations?
Sarah Watt, Senior Director, Analyst, Gartner Supply Chain