We are all increasingly aware of the problems associated with plastic waste. Overuse and irresponsible disposal, particularly of single-use plastic packaging, has led to disastrous consequences for the natural environment, as captured so vividly by the recent Blue Planet TV Series.
Earlier this year, the government announced a deposit return scheme for drinks containers will be introduced in England (subject to consultation), marking a shift in responsibility for disposal towards the producer. While some welcome the scheme as a step in the right direction, many think that regulators need to do more, for example using the tax system to encourage use of recycled plastic in preference to virgin material, and harmonising recycling systems to make it easier for households to understand and follow the guidelines.
In his London Environment Strategy published in May 2018, the Mayor of London calls for the government to take action on these issues, and ask it to set minimum standards of design for reuse and recyclability of packaging. He is also working with LWARB and the waste authorities on waste reduction and recycling targets for London; by 2030 65% of London’s municipal waste will be recycled.
Innovation in action
Working with LWARB’s Advance London project, businesses in London are taking up the challenge to help reduce the impact of plastics on the environment.
For example, London-based start up Skipping Rocks Lab is pioneering the use of natural materials to replace plastic packaging. Its first product Ooho is a flexible spherical package for water, or other liquids, using materials extracted from plants and seaweed. It is completely biodegradeable and even edible.
In a different approach, CupClub has designed an end-to-end returns service for cafés and drinks outlets, based on a trackable, reuseable cup. When the consumer finishes their drink, they just leave the cup at a collection point and CupClub does the rest. The cups are suitable for hot and cold drinks, offering an ideal alternative to plastic-lined coffee cups that have proved challenging for our current recycling systems.
Entrepreneurs in London are finding innovative new ways to reuse plastic waste too. Swimwear designer Riz makes high quality tailored board shorts using recycled plastic. Smile Plastics transforms waste materials into handcrafted decorative panels used by architects and designers. Delphis Eco sells its plant-based domestic cleaning products in refillable bottles made entirely from recycled milk bottles.
Getting consumers involved
Changes in consumer behaviour are required too. The average adult Londoner buys more than three plastic water bottles every week, or 175 bottles every year, and it is a habit that the Mayor of London would like us to break.
He is funding the roll out of water fountains across the city and supporting the Refill London scheme run by Thames Water to encourage us all to drink tap water. The scheme app shows the cafes and restaurants across the city which have signed up to the scheme to allow anyone to get free water refills.
“We all need to try harder to cut the excessive use of single-use plastic bottles and cups that can end up pointlessly overflowing our landfill sites, finding their way into our oceans and harming our environment,” said The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan in a press release issued by his office in March this year.
Water bottles are one of the most widespread and visible sources of single-use plastic waste, but they are clearly only a small part of the problem. What makes Refill London so effective is the way it nudges us all into action and at the same time draws attention to the wider problem. It contributes to a shift in perception and behaviour that helps to put pressure on manufacturers and retailers to come up with alternatives.
Optimistic for the future
“There is a strong culture of innovation and collaboration in London that will help to drive widespread change,” says Wayne Hubbard, Chief Executive Officer, LWARB. “While big brands are starting to recognise the need for change, entrepreneurs are seeing the opportunities that the new plastics economy provides. The Mayor of London is taking a lead on key issues and consumers are responding. Together, we can make a difference.”