• The zero-waste movement has persevered throughout the pandemic, despite weathering significant challenges.
  • Governments, businesses and consumers are increasingly realizing that recycling is not enough to address plastic pollution, and more action is needed at the upstream level.
  • Three innovators – Muuse, MIWA and Algramo – are disrupting business-as-usual with their reuse models.

Can the zero-waste movement survive the COVID-19 pandemic? Despite a statement from over 125 scientists last June attesting to the safely of reusable products, things looked shaky. As COVID-19 infections soared, states and countries like Maine, New York and the UK suspended bans on single-use plastics. Starbucks temporarily stopped accepting personal cups at its stores. The global plastic packaging market is projected to grow from $909 billion in 2019 to $1012 billion by 2021 – even though a staggering 86% of that packaging is never recycled.

But the stumbles were – eventually – followed by progress. At the highest levels of government, priorities began to reset. The UK issued a resounding endorsement for a global treaty on plastic pollution. EU countries like Germany and Greece have pledged to phase out single-use plastics by summer. And in China, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, the ban on disposable bags and straws is already in effect.

Increasingly, the world is realizing that recycling alone will not save us from plastic pollution. The vast amounts of plastic waste that endanger life in the ocean and on land must be tackled at all points of the supply chain, by every actor. Governments are adopting new policies and regulations. Companies are redesigning products to be sustainable, not disposable. Innovative businesses across the world are determined to design waste out of everyday products, and consumers are coming onboard.

Here are just three examples of innovative start-ups that are actively reducing humanity’s plastics footprint through championing the circular economy.

Designing waste out of takeaway culture.
Image: Muuse

Convenience without the waste

Takeaway cups and containers are convenient. They’re disposable. And they’re a microcosm of a larger culture – a “take-use-dispose” mindset that prioritises generating unsustainable amounts of new materials.

In cities around the world, creative businesses like Muuse have designed waste out of takeaway culture, while keeping the convenience factor intact. “We eliminate disposables by creating a network of cafes where consumers can collect and return reusable cups and containers,” says Brian Reilly, Founder and CEO of Muuse. “In Singapore and Hong Kong, where the effects of COVID have been less keenly felt, our business hasn’t been affected much, luckily. In fact, COVID pushed us to create a new opportunity – we’ve rolled out a nationwide food delivery service with reusable food boxes.”

Installing smart, hygienic shelves and food with dispensers.
Image: Vincent Colin

Smart packaging, smart results

Want to make a zero-waste purchase for your home? Increasingly, brands and retailers are tapping into technology to sell goods in refillable, reusable packaging that’s easy to use.

At the retail level, stores in Prague, Paris and Switzerland have enlisted the start-up MIWA to install smart, hygienic shelves and food with dispensers. They have created a safe way to dispense both food and non-food products from MIWA’s reusable capsules, which are then cleaned and shipped to be filled again by producers and brands. On top of that, consumers can dispense goods into or fill up their reusable containers with a diverse range of products like rice, nuts and dried goods – a process that eliminates any need for single-use packaging from the start.

“MIWA provides producers and retailers technology to sell goods in reusable packaging, allowing for a high hygienic standard for in-store operations and products’ full digital traceability,” says Ivana Sobolíková, Impact and Finance Director at MIWA. “Though we had to reschedule some installations, the need for more sustainable packaging grew stronger, and our focus on high standards in hygiene has brought us new opportunities. MIWA has been launched in Paris and is expanding in Switzerland.”

Dispensing homecare, personal care and pet food in a way that decouples packaging waste from consumption.
Image: Algramo

Revolutionizing household products and food purchases

When it comes to home deliveries, the company Algramo has also revolutionised the way people buy household products and food. In both emerging markets like Santiago and megacities like New York, its app allows customers to order the exact amount that they need, delivered straight to their smart, reusable packaging at home.

"Throughout the pandemic, we have seen an increase in demand for our refill services and IoT connected vending machines,” says Brian Bauer, Head of Circular Economy and Alliances at Algramo. “We are now dispensing homecare, personal care and pet food in a manner that decouples packaging waste from consumption. This past September we launched a pilot in New York City, our Jakarta pilot is launching in a couple of weeks’ time, and we are excited to be looking for a retail partner for our upcoming London pilot."

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without a healthy ocean - but it's more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

These are just three examples of innovative businesses that have successfully designed waste out of everyday products. Simple, convenient solutions like these are changing the way people consume every single day – and they make me hopeful that we are one step closer to a world free of plastic pollution.

A condensed version of this editorial was originally published in the print version of The Guardian as part of the 2021 Sustainable Packaging campaign.