Single-use products and packaging are convenient and affordable - and causing a growing waste crisis. Scientists have been alarmed to discover plastic pieces in locations far removed from human populations, such as the Arctic and on remote islands. Earlier this year an entire plastic bag, completely intact, was found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point; a chilling example of plastic’s pervasiveness throughout the natural environment.
Manufacturers send products and packaging into the world that are not captured by even the most well-managed disposal systems of landfilling and incineration (let alone recycling), and these end up as litter. Making their way into marine environments, they never fully degrade, leeching chemicals, releasing greenhouse gases and breaking down into microplastics, which are mistaken by animals for food and thus penetrate the human food chain and water supplies.
It is today’s consumers, not producers, who currently bear the brunt of this waste. Developing economies are even more deeply awash in trash. That we might see more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 is old news in light of the recent UN report that says we only have 12 years to steer ourselves away from climate catastrophe.
Plastic in and of itself isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the fact that plastic items are actually designed to be disposable — used once, then thrown away. Every step away from durable, reusable materials such as glass and metal towards plastics and multi-compositional pouches and films - in other words, making packaging lighter and less expensive - effectively cuts the packaging’s recyclability in half.
This linear, take-make-dispose economic model has delivered profits, created jobs and met consumers’ desire for accessible, innovative and convenient products, all while bringing down costs for producers. But this is not sustainable.
Globalization offers hope for a change in the future of production and consumption by supporting economic growth through the transformative power of collaboration. But to move away from a disposable culture and towards a circular economy - one that favours reducing the amount of raw materials used in manufacturing, reusing materials and recovering resources - influencers must begin to integrate rather than stay in their current silos.
Companies looking to effect change and end society’s dependence on disposability must demonstrate clear benefits to consumers, businesses, governments and the environment. This will be a challenge at first. But changemakers can develop their own initiatives and deploy them across industries to future-proof against our growing waste problem.
Invest in recycling
Recycling is a reaction to the systemic issue of single-use items, overconsumption and disposability. But comprehensive recycling systems and manufacturer take-back programmes are essential to not only change how we value single-use items, but in recovering materials for new production and diverting them from landfill and litter.
Manufacturers who engage in voluntary producer responsibility through take-back programmes for consumers and pre-consumer operations can demonstrate value for their stakeholders. Supporting the market for secondary materials then incentivises governments and municipalities to better enforce recycling with more resources.
Stop producing, using and buying single-use items without reclamation systems
This one is simple, but tough. As consumers, this means watching out for plastic cutlery, toting reusable mugs to replace coffee cups, reducing online shopping (or only buying from companies that use reusable e-commerce packaging, such as RePack), and shopping for used goods. We can only buy what is available to us, so while it remains the responsibility of consumers to demand a move away from disposability, manufacturers, brands and governments must create new models for consumption.
Retailers such as restaurants and commodity stores must favour reusable goods, and the manufacturers who produce them must find new ways to deliver the value benefits of things such as disposable razors, diapers and feminine care while transferring to durable equivalents, so that consumers are willing to make the switch. This sort of value creation requires these markets supporting one another through collaboration.
Redesigning how products are made, distributed and owned to create value for manufacturers and consumers will help the shift towards a new way of thinking about product design and ownership.
Focus on product and packaging redesign as a growth strategy
Design for recyclability in the current infrastructure, and for reusability today and beyond. With the increasing popularity of premium foods and beverages packaged in glass and durable plastics, we see that consumers are willing to pay more for a product presented in high-quality packaging. A move towards more easily recycled packaging and, better yet, packaging that is reused over and over, is already underway.
Creating a durable or reusable container uses more energy and resources than creating a disposable (or single-use) container. However, over time the reusable container has a lower environmental and economic cost as it does not need to be remanufactured for every use; instead it only needs to be transported and cleaned, which levy much lower environmental and economic costs.
Innovate for the future of consumption by looking to the past
For most of the 20th century, distributors of consumable and perishable goods provided reusable containers that customers could empty and then leave on their doorsteps - such as glass milk bottles, for example. These containers flowed through a system in which the producer was responsible for them and owned them as an asset. This is in contrast to the present day, where consumers and governments are responsible for products and packaging upon possession, paying for their disposal through taxes.
In the service-based models of yore, producers offered not just delivery, but cleaning, storing and transporting their containers, which were durable and reusable. We already invite producers to our doorsteps through e-commerce delivery and subscription service models. What if consumables and durable goods came with the added value of cleaning and repair services?
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Build a circular economy movement focused on abundance and prosperity
Replacing the single-use, one-way model requires a very clear demonstration of value that is comparable or exceeds that of disposable products and packaging, which are convenient, inexpensive and easy to use. Most of the innovation here lies in ensuring that reusable packaging concepts are easy to understand and accessible to those on average incomes.
Conservation and austerity are not concepts that businesses, NGOs, advocacy groups, academics and individuals take to with much effect. The movement away from disposability towards a circular economy needs to be irresistible, not just the ‘right thing to do’. Consumers and stakeholders will reward businesses that do this effectively.