Polymer, Rubber & Paper

How thinking outside the box can beat blight of plastic packaging

27/04/2018 | 14:19
Small companies are in the vanguard of the war on plastic by developing a host of alternatives

From Blue Planet’s disturbing footage of albatross parents feeding their chicks plastic to reusable coffee cups around the cabinet table at No 10, the “war on plastic” has caught the imagination. For entrepreneurs who have spent years trying to convince consumers of the evils of single-use plastic, the message is: what took you so long?

“We’ve been saying this for 20 years and no one was listening,” Michael Laurier says. The chief executive of Symphony Environmental, a company that produces an additive that makes plastic biodegradable, is among a cadre of small and medium-sized companies intent on helping the planet to wean itself off its addiction to single use plastics. And people are listening now, a fact that has been “very helpful” in lifting sales at the Aim-listed company.

Vegware, a maker of compostable packaging from coffee cups to carrier bags to takeaway boxes for the food service industry, tells a similar story. “In the last three months alone, our incoming inquiries have doubled,” Joe Frankel, the Edinburgh-based company’s founder, says.

Plastic is thought to be killing 100,000 sea mammals every year and there have been predictions that in 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. It’s also a problem on land, polluting soil, adversely affecting wildlife, habitats and human health.

According to Luke Bennett, interim chief executive and finance director of Frugalpac, maker of a disposable coffee cup made from recycled cardboard: “The images on Blue Planet and others showing plastic waste on beaches and open spaces across the world have affected everyone. The hard part is turning the emotional reaction into measurable action.”

Regulation has helped to give companies such as these a foothold. Since the introduction of a 5p plastic bag charge in 2015, the use of single-use bags has fallen by 85 per cent. Theresa May announced plans last week to introduce a ban on the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds by the end of the year as she noted that 12 million tonnes of plastic were entering the oceans every year, “equivalent to a rubbish truck full of plastic being dumped into the sea every 40 seconds”.

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, a campaign group, believes that entrepreneurs are primed to capitalise on growing appreciation of the problem: “As with any extreme moment of change, there’s tremendous opportunity. Over the next five years we will see small industries bubble up and big industries change direction.

“The plastic industry is nervous, but it doesn’t need to be something to be scared of. I love the fact that independent companies are springing up to tackle the issue. They are backing the right horse.”

There’s a vast array of plastic alternatives being tested in the packaging industry, from cellulose, made from plant polymer, to seaweed, nettles and good, old-fashioned paper. It’s tricky to pick a winner and Mr Laurier fears that some of the mooted alternatives to plastic can cause as many problems as they solve: “Cotton, paper and jute [a vegetable fibre] can all have a heavier impact than plastics. They also cost more and can’t always be recycled.” Paper straws, for example, don’t always entirely bio-degrade and “it’s debatable whether it comes from a sustainable source. You can’t capture all the material, you can’t recycle it all, so what do you do? To deal with plastic, you can reduce your use, reuse it or recycle. We bring a fourth option: eliminate it.”

Symphony Environmental’s product means that plastic can be recycled as usual, but if it escapes into an “open environment” as litter, it will break down safely in the same way as biological material. The technology can be used in existing plastics factories at little extra cost, the business claims.

The technology works by reducing the molecular weight of the plastic to the point where microbes can eat it and naturally recycle the material. It is made from a byproduct of oil refining, so the same amount of oil would be extracted from the ground even if they did not exist.

Symphony, which was founded in 1995, exports to about 100 countries. Mr Laurier says that being a British business has helped in winning the trust of international customers, yet the home market has been one of the toughest nut to cracks for the company from Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. “The UK is behind the curve because plastic hasn’t been a priority until the last 18 months or so.”

Mr Laurier, a packaging industry veteran, addressed the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference last week and found a receptive audience. He is hopeful that Britain might follow the examples of other nations and is in discussions with the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “We’ve spent millions investing in our technology and upping our visibility. I think something [more] will happen with plastics in the UK, I’m not sure exactly what. But if it did, it would have an incredible effect globally and will help us to move into more overseas markets.”

Mr Frankel originally intended Vegware to be a simple ecommerce operation, selling green packaging online. That, he says, was down to his “naivety. When I started the company, I had to Google ‘what’s a purchase order?’ It was that bad. But I’d spent nine years working as a researcher and I knew it’s not about Eureka moments, it’s about attrition. I have that discipline. Small steps add up to big changes.”

The company now has projected sales of £25 million and 60 staff. It exports to Europe and Asia and started a business in the United States last year as a hedge against the risk of a Brexit-inspired downturn at home. “It was a big risk for us, but packaging is an $8 billion market in the United States and the compostable market is worth $300 million. If we could get 10 per cent of that we’d have a very nice business.”

He says that emphasising benefits to customers beyond environmental ones has been key to the company’s growth. “We’re a solution first, a green company second. If you can help a customer to present a product nicely, you add value.”

Ms Sutherland says that one of the key challenges that companies selling alternatives to plastic face is a waste infrastructure that’s often not ready to handle their produce. “Many of the materials need a different waste management infrastructure. It’s easy for businesses to say, ‘We won’t adopt that because we don’t know where it will go.’ But plastic is often not recyclable, either, so it’s not a reason not to change.”

David Attenborough raised the issue of the impact plastic has on the sea

David Attenborough raised the issue of the impact plastic has on the seaBBC

This can be an issue for Vegware’s customers, so the company has launched its own collection service, called Close the Loop. Used Vegware packaging and food waste is collected and turned into commercial compost. The service is up and running in Scotland and will be launched in southwest England soon. “People say there’s no recycling infrastructure, but it’s coming,” Mr Frankel says. “It’s a bit chicken and egg, but it can change.”

He believes, too, that further regulation is needed to speed up the pace of change, for example by obliging consumer goods manufacturers to ensure that all packaging can be recycled or composted and that sensible materials are used. As it stands, combinations of two or more materials that can be recycled separately can often turn packaging into a single product that can’t. “There’s no shortage of innovation in packaging, but it has been designed for consumer appeal and shelf-life rather than recycling.”

However, with the likes of Evian pledging to use 100 per cent recycled bottles by 2025, he believes that the big food manufacturers and supermarkets have got the message. “They face different pressures to small businesses because of their scale and it is hard to change. But they can’t ignore the debate. It isn’t going away. They will make the move.”

Mr Laurier agrees that a tipping point has been reached and that both regulators and consumer goods giants are mindful of the need for change. “The pressure is on now. We’ve had 20 years of being told ‘later’, but now it’s in the mainstream news and people want answers.”

Reinventing the coffee cup is no mug’s game

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the celebrrity chef, showed how traditional coffee cups are difficult to recycle

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the celebrrity chef, showed how traditional coffee cups are difficult to recycle

A campaign led by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the celebrity chef, in 2016 showed how few coffee cups are recycled (James Hurley writes). While they are made mostly of cardboard, a thin layer of plastic film is bonded to the paper while it is flat and then waterproofing chemical agents are added.

The plastic film in the cup is not only bonded but also trapped in the seam, adding to the difficulty of recycling. Only about one in every 400 paper coffee cups is recycled.

Frugalpac is making cardboard cups that can be recycled

Frugalpac is making cardboard cups that can be recycled

Frugalpac, based in Ipswich, makes cardboard cups that can be recycled in regular recycling plants. It contains a little plastic, but the liner can be separated easily, so it can be disposed of in any paper recycling bin.

Luke Bennett, interim chief executive and finance director of the business, says that small businesses have an advantage when it comes to inventing plastic alternatives because they can move faster than larger companies. However, patience is required because adoption can be slow. “Plastic alternatives are a relatively new technology,” he says. “It will take time for industry to get used to these materials.”

Time is a luxury that not all entrepreneurs in the industry will have, especially since finance for such companies can be scarce. Mr Bennett says: “Making environmentally friendly products and rolling them out nationally is a demanding and expensive business. Investors need to have patience and faith in the appeal of the product.”

(The Times)

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