Why we need the big guns to start firing to phase out plastic
Imagine a material that’s cheap, easy to produce, durable, lightweight and versatile, and could preserve our environment. That’s what scientists thought they’d created when plastic first went mainstream during the Second World War.
Plastic was thought to be a great alternative to paper, metal and glass packaging because it wouldn't use up our precious natural resources. Fast forward 60 years and while plastic still holds many of the qualities for which it was first loved, it’s destroying the natural resources we so desperately need to protect.
I believe that the way to address this problem is to massively reduce - and ultimately eliminate - our use of single-use plastic. That’s what inspired me to go zero-waste four years ago and, ultimately, open Kilo, a shop that allows consumers to stock up on their household essentials, without any plastic packaging.
I was a workplace interior designer before Kilo. I worked on projects in the UK and Europe for some of the biggest tech companies in the world to reach their sustainability targets and secure sustainability certifications. While working on these projects, I learned more about the climate crisis we’re in and realised I was spending so much time preaching the changes that need to be made while not actually doing enough to be more sustainable in my own life.
My first move was to reduce the amount of plastic I was using by shopping at zero-waste shops. I fell in love with this way of shopping for many reasons, the main one being the significant fall in the amount of packaging I was throwing away. Seeing such a substantial difference by making such a simple change is what motivated me to find other aspects of my environmental footprint that I could improve on, and ultimately how my own zero-waste shop, Kilo, was born.
Our goal before we opened was for our stock to be completely plastic-free. We soon found out, however, that this wasn’t - and still isn’t - possible in our current linear economy. While the vast majority of our products come in 25kg paper sacks, the larger the company we’re buying from, the more plastic is involved - after all, it’s still more convenient and less expensive to wrap a product in plastic than use an alternative. We don’t have any smaller-scale independent suppliers who use plastic packaging: A lot of them employ a circular approach, taking back empties and refilling them.
It’s beyond frustrating - and unbelievably counterintuitive - that small manufacturers and independent shops are working to tackle the plastic pollution problem, while massive supermarkets are still preaching about recycling, knowing full well that only 9% of recyclable plastic in the UK is recycled.
On our first anniversary of opening Kilo, we calculated the amount of waste we’d saved: The numbers blew our minds. In one year, our little shop in London saved 49,000 pieces of plastic packaging. These numbers go to show how small changes really do add up to a massive difference.
Companies like Loop have partnered with Tesco to bring consumers brands like Coca-Cola, Persil, Ecover and Heinz in returnable and refillable packaging. Systems like this help to make reducing plastic packaging more mainstream and accessible to those who may not have a zero-waste shop nearby.
If Kilo can save 49,000 pieces of packaging in one year, then a massive chain like Tesco could save an insurmountable amount of plastic packaging.
Today, there are around 200 independently-owned zero waste shops in the UK, which is encouraging. However, there are also over 7,000 traditional supermarkets. Small, independent businesses shouldn't be the ones leading this change. 85% of people in the UK want their local supermarkets to cut down on plastic waste, so the demand is there. With money and spare time at an all-time low, consumers are going to shop where is most convenient and where is presumably the least expensive to them.
Not everyone has access to shops like Kilo that make reducing plastic use easy: They’re forced to go to a supermarket where they have no choice but to purchase products in plastic.
There’s also a stigma that shopping at zero waste shops is expensive, which further reduces the number of people who shop this way. At the end of the day, until big chain supermarkets decide they’re ready to make the change, consumers need to vote with their money and make changes, no matter how small, where they can.
The truth is, the prevalence of plastic today all comes down to convenience. Buying rice or pasta in a plastic bag may be convenient, but that bag will still be in a landfill when your great great great great great great grandchildren are alive. And, even then, it’ll just break down into smaller pieces of plastic.
There are alternatives. Glass and aluminium have been used for years and are infinitely recyclable, while plastic can only be recycled a couple of times. There are also new packaging materials made from corn, potato and soy protein – all are compostable. A lot of these will need to be composted in a commercial facility, which will require our recycling systems to adapt to accept them. In the long run, however, these are great alternatives to traditional single-use plastic.
Companies like Natureflex have created a compostable ‘plastic’ that can be used for produce, prepackaged foods, tea, coffee, and even crisps. These materials are still expensive, but hopefully, the greater their demand, the cheaper they’ll get. It’s time for corporations to vote with their money and stoke the demand for sustainable alternatives to plastic.
When a bath is overflowing, you don't grab a spoon and start scooping the water out, you turn off the tap. The only way we’re going to get out of this crisis is by turning off the tap on single-use plastics and putting our efforts into creating sustainable alternatives, like Natureflex, or circular packaging systems, like Loop.
Small businesses are currently leading the way towards a plastic-free future. It’s time for the big guns to step up.
Without them, we don't have any chance of turning off this tap.
Main image: Jordan Perata, Kilo