Plastic is cheap, lightweight and durable, making it an ideal material for packaging and consumer products. Unfortunately, those same qualities also make plastic a major pollutant. Plastic cups, grocery bags, soda bottles and other single-use plastics are piling up in landfills and waterways. Now, companies, governments, foundations and individuals are rallying to the cause, creating awareness, regulations and new technologies to replace plastic.
The spotlight on single-use plastics reportedly began in Vermont in 2011 with nine-year-old Milo Cress’s focus on the plastic straw through his campaign “Be Straw Free.” What started as a grassroots campaign became a bigger movement that expanded to target water bottles, plastic grocery bags and beyond.
The statistics are staggering. In the most recent data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, about 35.4 million tons, or 13.2 percent, of America’s municipal waste was plastic in just one year. Globally only about 14 percent of plastic is recycled. By some estimates, there could be more plastic in the water than fish by 2050.
It's still early days, but there is a growing awareness among consumers, major corporations and investors about the repercussions of plastic. The packaging industry and its customers are taking note of the shift and beginning to adapt. While it’s easy to assume that the backlash against plastic could be damaging for business, it could also be an opportunity.
Big Business Gets on the Bandwagon
The biggest shift in thinking about plastic has come about in the last few years, with hundreds of global companies, in collaboration with the United Nations, signing a commitment to significantly reduce their plastic addiction by 2025. These signatories such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Target, Unilever and Walmart agreed to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging, transition to reusable plastics or compostable packaging and increase the recycled content of their plastics.
Meanwhile, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and others, such as the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation, are taking leadership roles in what they call “The New Plastics Economy,” which seeks to create a circular path for plastics in the world. This means eliminating the plastics consumers don’t need, innovating so that all new plastics are compostable or reuseable, and finding productive uses for old plastics so they don’t end up in oceans or landfill.
Governments Are Also Banishing Plastic
It’s not just businesses that are ridding themselves of plastic; entire governments recognize the threat and have begun to fight. England, Canada, Chile, Germany, China, India and the United States have taken steps to minimize single-use plastic.
The state of Hawaii was the first in the country to pass a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags in 2015. Eight states have now banned plastic bags. In February 2020, New York City took it one step further and banned the sale of single-use beverage bottles on city-owned and city-leased properties.
Innovation Could Be the Answer
The collective quest to reduce single-use plastic has spurred new investments and innovative ideas. McDonald's plans to make all its customer packaging renewable, recycled or from certified sources by 2025. Starbucks has invested $10 million into developing recyclable cups and lids—and they offer discounts to consumers who use their own mugs. Unilever has a goal of getting plastic to 100% recyclable by 2025. Major hotel chains, such as Marriott, have stopped providing small plastic bottles of toiletries to guests, opting for refillable glass dispensers or recyclable packaging.
Last year, the biggest retail companies on the planet—Amazon and Walmart—dipped their toes in the movement by declaring that they would reduce the amount of single-use plastic in packaging in India.
The Swiss conglomerate Nestle, the largest bottled water company by volume, said it would begin to roll out water dispensers in 2020 and pledged to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Also the parent company of Nespresso, which sells popular single-use coffee pods, Nestle began offering recycling of its pods through a free shipment.
At the same time major corporations are looking to shrink their plastic footprint, innovative alternatives have sprung up. Scientists in Chile created what’s being called the first water-soluble plastic bag. Made from a derivative of limestone, the material behaves like plastic but dissolves in cold water in five minutes.
Eventually, companies of all sizes and industries will likely be impacted by the move away from single-use plastic—but, again, this trend need not be a negative. For companies that can get ahead of the curve or lead the charge with new alternatives, there are tremendous opportunities.