Why we shrink-wrapped the world, and how we can break free.

This Plastic Free July, discover the rise and (we hope) fall of single-use plastics for people, governments and businesses.

by Bella Ali-Khan | Environmental | 25 July 2022

As Ruth unpacked our monthly office delivery of Who Gives A Crap, the conversation naturally turned to single use plastic, and from there to Plastic Free July. Lots of us in the office are giving it a try this year, pledging to make simple swaps in our journey to reducing our plastic consumption. 

Both as a business and as individuals, we feel we’re making progress. Moving into our new office in May gave us a great opportunity to put in place new eco-elements to help us reduce, reuse and recycle. But we’ve still got a way to go. That’s the case for many in the UK. So why is it just so hard to give up plastic? Our cravings for convenience have led us to a sticky situation. The UK now produces more plastic waste per person than almost any other country. Plus, we send a huge amount of our plastic waste abroad, shipping it to countries that can’t cope with it (1)

Our love affair with the easy and the cheap, regardless of the consequences on the environment, have got to stop. So this Plastic Free July, join us in making real progress. 

Plastics: from hero to zero 

The thing is, we weren’t always this dependent on plastics. After plastics’ conception in the 1900s, production and use increased, but it took a while for us to become hooked. Since the 1970s, however, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material in the world (2).   

The 70s was a decade of technological revolution (the first apple computer, mobile phones, the floppy disk!). It was also marked by the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which gave women in the UK the right to the same pay as men for equally skilled work. This saw more women leaving the home to go to work, reducing the time they had available to cook and clean. All of this saw a rise in the demand for convenient, easy solutions. Hello single-use plastics. 

Today, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled (3), and half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes (4). Packaging, including food packaging, is the biggest plastic polluter in the world, entering the environment, wildlife, and even our own bodies. It’s time to say goodbye to our plastic addiction. 

Progress without plastic 

Don’t get us wrong, plastics have a place in our lives. They’re versatile, cheap and long-lasting. But these very values are also what make plastics a huge problem, especially when they’re produced, used once, then trashed or burned. 

If we’re to use plastics sensibly, we have to keep them in a circular model for as long as possible, finding more uses for recycled plastic, and actually recycling them properly. We also need to reduce the amount we create. Drastically. 

The good news is, the world is waking up. People, governments and industries are acting:  

UK consumers are flocking to sign up to convenient, sustainable subscription services. Since lockdown, companies such as The Modern Milkman (all hail plant milks in glass bottles), Oddbox (plastic-free, wonky fruit and veg), and the aforementioned Who Gives A Crap have flourished. 

But if there’s one thing that’s a bigger catalyst of behaviour change than convenience, it’s price. Just take the UK’s cold turkey response to plastic carrier bags. Since the 5p charge was introduced in 2015, carrier bag sales have dropped by more than 95% (5). The fee trumped our desire for convenience, causing us to divert our actions to a less convenient option to save money. 

2022 will see two new plastic laws; a ban on microbeads, plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and a new UK tax on plastic packaging that is not at least 30% recycled content (6)

And as for businesses, we’ve seen the rise of rewards for BYO reusable cups at highstreet café chains, as well as several large supermarket chains trialling plastic-free refill stations. Even most fast food chains are making an effort (those plastic straws were the first to go).

This is all fantastic progress, but as we said at the beginning, we still have a long way to go

A fresh perspective on plastic 

If we’re to drastically reduce our single-use plastic consumption, we do need to find swaps that are both sustainable and viable, while serving the same function equally as well. 

Take the initial paper straws that eclipsed plastic straws – first iterations became soggy after just a few sips. Consumers were annoyed, so the paper straws were redeveloped and the problem was solved. In fact, in many Italian bars and restaurants they now use pasta straws (essentially, bucatini!). 

Human instinct is to shy away from change, even if we know it’s for the best. So businesses who are reducing plastic or innovating alternatives must create the right messages to encourage consumers to go with the changing times. 

It’s all about managing expectations, providing reassurance, and being human. We are all on a journey to reducing our single-use plastic, your business is no different. Make your tests and trials a part of your communication strategy, as well as the successes. If your business is making meaningful change, your customers will want to know. 

Innovation station 

The really good news is that we live in a time of rapid science and tech development. There are many brains working on the plastic problem, and innovative start-ups are finding solutions to sustainable plastic and packaging alternatives all the time. 

Notpla is a UK-based start-up that makes packaging out of seaweed. It comes in various forms, including an edible film that melts in the mouth, which has been trialled during sporting events as an alternative to energy gels in plastic packets. The start-up has received grants from Innovate UK and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, as well as investment from Sky Ocean Ventures. 

Cauli Box is another UK-based start-up, which has devised a reusable takeaway container system. The brand connects restaurants with consumers via an app, allowing takeaway food to be delivered in reusable containers, which are then washed and reused endlessly. 

And finally, Shellworks is, yes you guessed it, a UK-based start-up making biodegradable, plastic-free packaging for consumer goods that are currently packaged in plastic that’s difficult or impossible to recycle. Think plastic freshness seals, lipstick tubes and oil droppers. 

Let’s support these businesses in any way we can. Trial their new products, give feedback, invest in the future of their innovation, or simply share their stories and help build awareness and therefore demand for them. 

Small actions lead to big changes 

Our recent move to a lovely new office gave us a great opportunity to make lots of changes. Some of our new eco policies we’d be planning for a while, but many are everyday actions that all businesses and offices can do. Our ethos is one of the key reasons people want to work with us, so it has to flow through all that we do. 

In our kitchen: 

When it came to designing the new office, we used recycled materials and vegan leather for new furniture. Sourcing reclaimed wood and second-hand were key, as was keeping all our existing office furniture – we didn’t replace anything that didn’t need replacing. 

It was also important to us to work with local businesses for the fit-out. A huge shout-out to Shaun at BroadSigns for our gorgeous sign, to Tomasz from Urban Pipes for creating our tables, our painter and decorator, and of course, to The Vineyard, Lamberhurst for their excellent supply of pizzas! 

As both a business and a person, reducing plastic consumption is vital. Whether you select one single-use plastic item and banish it from your life for a month, or you opt for beach cleans or river tidy ups, we hope you’ll join us this July. Once you start, you can’t unsee how much plastic goes through your hands on a day to day basis. 

We are all about helping purpose-based brands to create work that ignites change. Are you battling plastic production and making changes for good? Drop us a line, we’d love to help. 

01892 887239 | theteam@catchafireagency.com