The War on Plastic

Pictures from Indonesia showing  ‘solid rafts’ of plastic bags and bottles in local rivers, talk of the 965,000 square miles of plastic in a region of the South Pacific created by circular currents, and Blue Planet 2 showing images of delicate seahorses holding cotton buds in their tails have all raised the profile of our use of and disposal of plastics in recent months…

Plastics and their derivatives were the wonder products of the 1970’s made possible by the availability of oil, the fact that it is relatively cheap and energy efficient to produce. So much so that we have all come to think of plastic as ‘throw-away’, not actually thinking about how it will be disposed of and how we can help with that. Many plastics have been recyclable and biodegrable for years but few of us have really thoughts about how we can do this unless our local council has encouraged us to by offering recycling schemes.

Polypropylene has been a popular material for filing products since the 1990’s and is made from recycled plastics and is recyclable too. It came to the fore 20 years ago because of the fantastic colours and finishes available at the time, but is less popular now as we use more board with interesting print and foil finishes which are likely to be impossible to recycle unless the elements can be successfully separated.

Disposing of plastic is causing a world wide problem and recently China who recycled a significant percentage of our plastics closed its doors to our waste plastic so all of a sudden we have to get better at dealing with it ourselves or find another willing partner to do it for us.

Earlier this year the government set targets around minimising waste and materials reuse with the focus on zero avoidable waste, meeting waste targets, eliminating waste crime and significantly reducing marine plastic pollution. The target is to achieve these goals between 2042 and 2050. And whilst everyone applauds this stance, many - including the European Union - feel it should be enshrined in law so that the targets have some bite and that the real answer is to have a circular approach to this problem where we recycle and reuse more, rather than creating more virgin products.

The food industry has also responded with a voluntary pledge to transform packaging and reduce avoidable plastic waste. Forty-two companies, including 7 of the largest supermarkets, have supported this new pledge committing that by 2025 all plastic packaging can be reused, recycled or composted. These are big enough businesses and users of plastic packaging to make a difference to the UK’s usage. 

Other retailers are happy to declare their stance on the use of sustainable materials and waste management as well; for example Paperchase, who are fulfilling their obligations under the WEEE regulations for the disposal of batteries and electrical equipment, use sustainably sourced timber for their paper and board. But as yet, they have nothing in place around plastics.

While WH Smith are not explicit about the detail of what they do they have a clear policy about their reduction of waste going to landfill and being recycled and are not embarrassed to say that part of it is driven by financial considerations including the landfill levy’s they are charged as well as the cost of unnecessary packaging.

However, at the moment this is all based around voluntary actions and targets and not enshrined in legislation. When businesses and consumers are working with limited budgets and incomes, there is a reluctance to invest in new processes or spend more on environmentally friendly products so there is a danger that there will be little support from business or consumers for these reductions unless it saves them money. Yet certainly in the immediate future: we all need to adopt greener practices as habit. 

The BOSS Federation, the trade association which serves the UK office supplies and services industry, was asked by a number of its members to see if it could raise awareness of the single use of plastics issue within their sector of the industry, and to encourage best practice in all areas of the supply chain. In July, a meeting was facilitated of interested parties and terms of reference agreed including defining what should be included, educating themselves and others on information, and issues relating to this area such as:

  • Common data gathering and reporting,

  • Improving by encouraging compliance with agreed best practice, and

  • Lobbying by using industry and government contacts to influence both legislation and the industry as a whole.

Stewart Superior’s range Seco has been available for a number of years, the range has strong environmental credentials: the materials used to make the products are recycled where possible; the products and packaging are recyclable; the products are completely oxo- biodegradeable and the products function as normal while being used… the best of both worlds.

Of course plastics are also used for pens and Pilot Begreen was the first full range of recycled pens to be offered at the same price as its normal range. Six years on, and the Begreen range is popular in the B2B channel as businesses need to be seen to be using environmentally friendly products, but for consumers’ pen selection is more personal around look and function and recycled materials used in their manufacture do not seem to be a key decision making criteria.

 However, given that environmental matters continue to dominate modern life I am sure that consumers will become more savvy over such issues as product miles, country of origin and packaging. And if in the future we can reduce any price premium, I am sure that will help products with environmental benefits grow in popularity with the consumer market and put pressure on retailers to stock them.

Many retailers have tried and given up with refillable products as it seems that consumers are motivated by brand, product appearance and performance - so being refillable is a secondary benefit. Interestingly retailers have never been big fans of refills either as the return on space is poor with ink cartridges being the only notable exception because most ink pens use 1 of 2 standard formats. With ballpens and rollerballs, until recently only more expensive pens even offered refillable options. Now, many brands use Amazon as an online warehouse for refills?

Often it is not the material itself that cannot be recycled - it is what we have done to it. Normally paper or board should be fine to recycle but as soon as you add a film laminate, foil or glitter we create problems as they are difficult to remove in the recycling process. Using water or corn starch-based laminates allow boards to be recycled and there are new degradable glitters in development. 

Foils are still a challenge because they are usually aluminium based so while very on trend in design terms they are not helping the environment. Foils can be floated off if the recycling company has suitable equipment; and biodegradable foils are being researched at the moment! These developments have been on businesses agendas for a while but Blue Planet has added some real impetus to these plans. 

It is a similar story with the bags we sell our products in. Some films can technically be recycled but very few local authorities have the facilities to do it; so even if the film was collected separately, which it isn’t, it couldn’t be processed anyway. Biodegradable film will do exactly that over time but it breaks down into tiny slivers if it does not disappear.

Corn starch film is compostable and will break down, but only if they are put in the right conditions like on your compost heap, or put in your black rubbish which means it will end up in landfill like the rest of your rubbish and it won’t degrade as intended there. 

There are lots of examples of changes being made, the National Trust sent out the summer edition of their member’s magazine in a new potato starch wrapper which is suitable for domestic composting but they make it quite clear that we have to put it in our compost heaps for that to happen.

UK packaging solutions provider, Hazel 4D, has launched new Surf recyclable mailing envelopes with a padded lining made of corrugated paper… which gives the envelopes the strength and rigidity required to protect products from damage in the post - and are 100% recycled.

And the impetus is certainly growing around this in the last week before going to press card publisher Artfile has announced that it is offering retailers a 4p price reduction for ‘going naked’ on cards . As consumers, will we remember to pick up the envelopes and will we mind cards and envelopes being marked, if we want to make a difference we will have to get used to it. 

The Greeting Card Association’s (GCA) CEO Sharon Little announced that in a few weeks time they will be ready ‘’to share full advice with our card publisher members and associate retailer and supplier members on environmental matters in relation to greeting cards,” Given the synergies between the card and stationery industry and the fact that in the UK many businesses are involved in both market sectors this is bound to influence the stationery on offer in 2019.

Driving home today I heard someone talking about an initiative they are using at sports grounds encouraging spectators to return their plastic glasses for a £1 deposit at Lords the spectators were slow on the uptake but an enterprising youngster decided he would forego watching the cricket and earned himself £92 collecting the glasses; showing that we all need to care more even if it is because of a financial incentive!!

There is a huge amount of research going in to developing more environmentally friendly materials and processes, but we cannot expect this to continue if we do not do our bit. As consumers we need to be aware of what we are buying and how we should be disposing of it - and we must support these initiatives, be prepared to put the effort in and maybe spend a little bit more to give these initiatives the support and the impetus they need…