Alison Kemp, waste specialist and associate director at Wardell Armstrong, turns her attention to the issue of single use packaging. Coffee cups have come to the fore of late, but will it take several solutions to make a difference in single use packaging waste, or is there one big innovation the industry is waiting for?
There has been a recent flurry of press activity focused on the humble single use coffee cup, largely looking at determining the reality of claims in relation to its recyclability and whether the cups are actually finding their way to re-processors. This has sparked a really interesting public debate. Numerous other single use packaging items face the same waste management challenges and so the potential solutions can be considered more broadly across the sector.
Although these items do not make up a large proportion of our overall waste tonnages, these are some of the UK’s fastest growing waste streams. Our inability to effectively manage sustainable processing of single use packaging therefore represents a wider failing across the industry.
Building on the momentum gained through the press coverage, some progress towards developing more sustainable solutions to this issue is being made. First results are a wider collaboration throughout the supply chain and an emerging consideration of circular economy principles. It is clear that a number of credible options are starting to evolve that will help to drive this sector towards a more sustainable overall solution. However, this is a highly complex problem that presents a significant, global circular economy challenge. There will not be one answer, but instead it will require a combination of effective initiatives to drive this sector towards success.
Supply chain collaboration
Every step in the supply chain needs to be engaged in the process and working together towards a system that is mutually beneficial. This sounds great, but supply chains are often very complicated and change frequently. Effective collaboration requires responsible leadership, from one of the steps/suppliers in the chain or from an external party.
Aligning product design with processing and end of life
I think that key to the success will be aligning the original product design and composition with the systems in place to distribute, use, reuse and re-process that product. We need to ensure that when claiming products can be reused or recycled, the information and infrastructure is in place to actually enable that to be delivered, and that the cycle can be evidenced and demonstrated to those using the system, so that they believe that it works.
Match innovation with communication
The new and exciting products that the creative and collaborative development process produces, need well implemented systems for introducing them effectively to the market. Key to the successfully delivery of this will be communication with all those utilising the items. It is important that everyone is engaged and informed through the use of simple, easy, consistent and transparent messages and standardised approaches.
Encourage thinking outside of conventions to design innovative products and approaches of a high quality that people really want to use. Draw on inspiration from other sectors, countries, cultures and environments and engage all walks of life in the debate and development.
Creating outputs that have a market value
When systems are in place for items to be effectively recycled, it is then important to ensure that usable and desirable products are generated from the recycling process. For example, a paper/plastic product that could be used to make furniture for use on the street or in the coffee shops themselves. Or a clever design, so that the packaging can be recycled in to more of the same original product. Creating a market and a value for the recycled output will help to drive the investment and therefore the development of new techniques and technologies which will in turn, drive the cycle towards commercial viability.
Consider the use of incentives
For any scheme to be effective long term, its initiation will require some incentive in addition to the environmental benefits that can be achieved. These could be anywhere on a spectrum from overarching legislation and fiscal drivers to voluntary manifestos and more item specific levies, discount and reward schemes. All of these techniques have had some success in the past, and will need to be considered for their merits in relation to each individual supply chain and align with the overall sustainable objectives.
Educate towards behavioural change
A key barrier highlighted above is habitual reliance on the convenience of ‘throw away’ items. It is important that all developers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers are bought in to the system and understand and appreciate the importance of, and the need for, change. To fundamentally adjust how people feel and think about convenience culture, we will need to start in schools, homes, workplaces, and on the street, getting the clear and simple messages across through clever branding, consistent advertising campaigns and practical advice and support.
We don’t have all the answers yet, but it is clear that by building on the current interest and momentum, and encouraging collaboration across the whole supply chain, from manufacturers to suppliers, big brands, government, re-processors and the consumer, solutions can be explored and trialled. Through engaging people across the sector in creative thinking, the benefits of the solutions developed could spread to have a positive impact both within the sector and more widely.
Using virgin materials for a single use before disposal is not sustainable, and reducing our material consumption will have a significant positive environmental impact, so we need to design products and systems that work in harmony, and ensure that everyone understands and trusts in those systems. There is unlikely to be one perfect solution, more likely, a multitude of smaller innovations and connections that will ultimately evolve in to a successful circular system for managing our convenience containers.