When it comes to plastics, making more sustainable choices for your business can seem just as difficult as it is in everyday life. After all, plastics can be found in just about everything, from cars and clothing to buildings and packaging.
How to reduce plastic use? Instead of starting with huge changes, focusing on a few key strategies can help pave the way towards improving sustainability. Here’s how you and your company can take action.
Eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics
Trying to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics is a good place to start. A ban on many of these types of plastics will come into force across EU member states in 2021, and items such as plastic cutlery, straws and stirrers will be prohibited.
Conducting a plastics audit can help identify plastic products in your company that are only used once. Items used in the largest quantities should be tackled first by coming up with alternatives.
Communal kitchens in offices, but also coffee shops and restaurants, can be stocked with reusable cups and dishes instead of disposable ones, and a water refill station can replace bottled water. Customers might also be given discounts when choosing reusable options, for example, bringing their own cup to a coffee shop.
In the long run, getting rid of unnecessary single-use plastics that your company, employees or your customers use is likely to cut costs as you won’t need to buy and replace stock quite as often. Waste disposal is also costly for many businesses so reducing plastic waste can lead to savings here, too.
For companies that sell food or drinks and use single-use plastic as packaging, switching to more sustainable alternatives can be a quick win. Using plastic bottles and other packaging that are from 100% recycled materials or made from bio-based plastic, for example, could be preferable substitutes and help reduce single use plastic.
Wherever single-use plastic items are used, however, ensure that they are collected for recycling together with other types of plastic waste.
Be transparent about your plastics
How much plastic does your company produce and consume? Last year, Coca-Cola disclosed its plastic footprint for the first time, revealing that it produces three million tons of plastic packaging per year. The disclosure was announced after the company joined a global initiative to reduce plastic pollution, with a vision to eliminate as much plastic as possible, to ensure that any plastics used are reusable and recyclable, and to ensure any discarded plastic items don’t end up polluting the environment.
Tallying up the amount of plastic you use ensures that appropriate strategies for tackling the sustainability challenges related to such volumes can be put in place. It allows companies to distinguish between unnecessary plastic (such as foam peanuts used when shipping products) and unavoidable plastic (such as adhesive tape or packaging to ensure hygiene and safety of items). It also enables you to calculate the costs of replacing these with more sustainable alternatives or the savings that could result from getting rid of any unnecessary plastics. Sharing your plastic figures publicly might add positive public pressure to commit to your set targets.
A number of companies are now offsetting their plastic footprint. Similarly to carbon offsetting, where companies invest in environmental projects to balance out their carbon footprint, plastic offsetting allows companies to offset unavoidable plastic usage by investing in initiatives that tackle plastic pollution. For example, companies can pay to clean up waterways and beaches overrun with plastic waste. Similarly to achieving carbon neutrality by reducing the company’s emissions first before offsetting the rest, businesses should focus on reducing their plastic footprint first, while offsetting can be a complementary strategy to help achieve “plastic neutrality”.
Make a pact
Participating in joint initiatives can be a good motivator. In several regions, businesses and governments are collectively committing to targets to help curb negative impacts of plastic waste and unnecessary plastic use. Over 80 organizations, including governments and companies, have signed up to the European Plastics Pact with the aim of eventually reaching a circular economy where all plastic is reused instead of becoming waste. Pledges include reducing the need for new plastic products and packaging by 20% and making all single-use plastic recyclable if not reusable by 2025.
Tijana Duric, strategic sustainability marketing manager at Neste – a company actively developing renewable and circular solutions to help the plastic industry in its sustainability journey – thinks public commitments are a good way to drive change. “Joint plastics commitments and pacts give a very good overview of how far companies would like to go, what their capabilities are and where they're putting their efforts,” she says.
At its best, a pact provides a framework to reassess specific aspects of one’s business. It can help identify which other companies, such as suppliers, you can partner up with to meet targets, for example.
Pacts are often bold, with targets that may seem hard to meet. But Duric thinks that it’s good to think big and have an ambitious vision. “It’s a positive way to pull a community together,” she says.
Demand sustainable options for your suppliers
Public awareness of plastics consumption and challenges related to plastic waste is growing. 77% of consumers considered plastic to be the least sustainable type of packaging according to a survey published last year with 6,000 respondents from 11 countries in Europe, North America and Asia. Furthermore, 83% of consumers said it was important or extremely important for companies to design reusable or recyclable products.
In response, it’s a good idea for companies to work with their suppliers to source more sustainable solutions, from raw materials to packaging. There are increasing volumes of bio-based and recycled options for plastics production available on the market. Polypropylene, for example, is a plastic used in a wide range of products from bottles and tote bags to plastic packaging. Now, thanks to new technologies, it can be recycled into a high-quality material that can be used as a substitute for new polypropylene. The plastic can also already be produced from renewable materials at a commercial scale.
Companies at the beginning of the value chain should also assess the raw materials they are using. Neste is exploring ways to use liquified plastic waste to produce raw material for new plastic, with a goal of processing over a million tons of waste plastic annually per year from 2030 onwards.
Join the circular economy
In a circular economy, resources are used for as long as possible, then reused and recycled as many times as possible before reaching the end of their life. This is in contrast to typical linear economic models where resources are used and then disposed of.
A shift to a circular plastics economy can reduce the negative impact of plastic waste and provide economic and societal benefits. Thinking like this, your business can consider its plastic waste as a resource and look for ways to reuse it internally or as a raw material for other sectors.
Plastic packaging, which makes up the largest share of plastic use and accounts for 36% of plastic produced, also accounts for a significant part of plastic waste. Some big companies are therefore trialing returnable packaging schemes inspired by the traditional milkman model, where products are delivered to people’s homes in containers that are later collected and reused. Consumers pay a deposit for the packaging which is refunded when they leave it out for pick-up or drop it off at a collection point. The containers are then sent to a facility where they are cleaned and reused.
Plastic products can also be provided as part of a service instead of selling the plastic item itself. Buying a service in which office water dispensers are leased instead of bought, can help offset waste.
Sandrine Ceurstemont is a science and tech journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, National Geographic, BBC Earth and Scientific American.
Neste's solution for plastics
Neste has developed a drop-in solution from renewable and recycled raw materials that can be used on its own or in a blend to create plastic products of identical quality to those made out of conventional raw materials based on virgin fossil oil.