'The most important thing is to avoid plastic going to landfill.'

Oscar Mendez

In the last few years, there has been a growing awareness about the catastrophic effect of single-use plastic on the planet. From successful global campaigns resulting in plastic straws being banned in countries such as England and Canada, to beach clean-ups that tackle the rubbish washed up on our shores, it’s a material high on everyone’s environmental agenda. But how are businesses working to reduce the impact of plastic through innovations in the product space and, crucially, what are the eco-friendly alternatives? 

For Colombian architect Oscar Mendez, who co-founded Conceptos Plásticos in 2011, one solution is to re-use the types of plastics that are often overlooked. ‘It started with an environmental concern; the most important thing is to avoid plastic going to landfill,’ says Oscar who creates easy-to-assemble systems for building affordable housing in Latin America and Africa. ‘We realised that we needed to find a way to get hold of plastics that no one else wants so we started to work with companies who disassemble electronics but were only taking advantage of the metal. Our product gives a value to those plastics left behind.’

Not only is the housing system inexpensive (it typically costs around 20 to 30 per cent less than traditional construction depending on the country), but it is also highly durable. Yet, what makes his company also stand out is the supply chain. ‘From the beginning, we thought about how we can improve the life of the people collecting plastic who are paid almost nothing. We work directly with them, cutting out any intermediary so they have greater opportunities,’ says Oscar who believes that helping others improve their circumstances makes his own life richer. 

‘Part of the problem with the linear economy model is that there’s very little consequence.’ 

Sophie Walker

This idea of giving plastic a value is also at the heart of Dsposal, a UK-based software company that builds digital tools to help waste producers handle what they dispose of legally and efficiently (the platform includes everything from live information about waste permits to semi-automatic audit tools). There is also a social enterprise arm, Your Dsposal, a public directory of waste services and a waste thesaurus aimed at helping people correctly classify their rubbish. 

‘Our long-term mission is around the circular economy,’ explains COO and co-founder Sophie Walker, for whom doing something meaningful is the key to a richer life. ‘Materials go into the bin as waste and often we don’t think about what happens to them. They should be resources, not discarded and treated poorly. We’re trying to give people a connection to their waste and visibility of it so they can understand its value.’ 

Sophie and her business partner Tom Passmore are also working on several plastic-specific research projects including one, funded by Innovate UK, which is focused on making inhalers more sustainable (currently they account for around three per cent of the UK National Health Service carbon footprint). ‘We’re focusing on the plastic actuator that the canister fits into. At first, we looked at whether it could be re-designed in a new material but aluminium, for instance, has a higher carbon footprint than the plastic it’s currently made from,’ says Sophie. ‘Now we’re looking at how the actuator could be reusable, say for two years.’ While there are some challenges around ensuring the actuators don’t end up with blockages or dispensing the incorrect amount of medication, in essence, research has shown that they can be re-used (a report is being published imminently).    

‘The problem is that when a manufacturer sells something he gives away control and the consumer isn’t interested in what becomes of it at the end of its life.’

Professor Walter Stahel

‘Something we find time and again is that because the cost of waste disposal isn’t borne by designers and manufacturers, they can make incredibly unhelpful decisions about material types,’ says Sophie. ‘Part of the problem with the linear economy model is that there’s very little consequence. That’s why the circular economy, designing with the end life of a product in mind and thinking about whether something is fixable or reusable can have such a massive impact.’ 

A key thinker on the circular economy, Walter Stahel, agrees that changing our approach to design and manufacturing is the way to make a real difference when it comes to plastic waste. ‘The problem is that when a manufacturer sells something he gives away control and the consumer isn’t interested in what becomes of it at the end of its life,’ he confirms. ‘At the moment we live without thinking about what we are doing; if we start thinking then we can use much better materials for certain applications. Those in mass production would prefer that we only use a few materials because then the making of the object is cheaper.’ 

He cites the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation’s chemical leasing programme as an example alternative performance-based business model. Rather than sell quantities of chemicals, the supplier sells the function. For instance, if a chemical is used to degrease metal parts, payment is made according to the number of pieces cleaned rather than the amount of chemical used. 

‘We wanted to educate people about plastic and raise awareness by creating a product that was unique and different.’

David Christian 

There are similar value-added instances in agriculture too. ‘The modern management of crops allows you to use very little agrochemicals to fight weed or pests,’ says Walter. ‘By using drones or satellite photography you can see where the problem is, so spraying is very precise. If a chemicals company has a contract for field management, they can be paid the same amount of money than if they sold the chemical, but the environmental impact is much less. The problem is that it’s more advantageous to sell goods outright because you are paid immediately and get rid of the liability; if you sell a service, you get the same money but over a longer period of time and you are accountable.’

One company focusing on producing sustainable alternatives to single use microplastics is Indonesia’s Evo & Co. It was co-founded in 2016 (as Evoware) by David Christian when, on return to Jakarta after four years living in Canada, he could see that there was a problem with plastic waste. ‘We wanted to educate people about plastic and raise awareness by creating a product that was unique and different,’ recalls David. ‘At the time there was the concept of edible cups made from squid in Japan. Indonesia is one of the largest seaweed producers in the world so I thought we could make our own version, the Ello Jello Cup.’ 

Biodegradable and chemical-free seaweed packaging, designed by his co-founder Noryawati Mulyono to replace food sachets such as those used for noodle seasoning, soon followed. ‘Seaweed is very sustainable; it only takes 45 days to grow, and it releases oxygen,’ he says. The company works directly with a seaweed farmers’ cooperative and, two years ago, began looking into other plastic alternatives: now they supply bamboo cutlery, cassava shopping bags and food containers made from sugar cane to businesses within Indonesia. 

'It’s important to find a solution to pollution problems and probably part of that is to look for less toxic materials that can replace plastics.'

Dr Sandra Pascoe

Also harnessing natural resources is Mexican scientist Dr Sandra Pascoe who has created a biodegradable plastic from nopal cactus juice obtained from its leaves. Her research began around eight years ago when a group of industrial engineering chemistry students she was teaching at the Universidad del Valle de Atemajac in Zapopan decided to investigate whether it was feasible to make plastic from endemic cacti. Once the project was over, Sandra – who equates happiness to a richer life – decided to continue the research herself. 

‘Right now, we are at the prototype stage of making small objects such as spoons and toys that have been shaped with a mould. We are working on pilots at the industrial level but have had some difficulties, precisely because it doesn't have the same characteristics as conventional plastic,’ she explains of the cacti juice. It is a natural polymer that can be improved with the addition of other non-toxic substances. ‘The processing conditions have to be adapted to the conditions of this material and we need to make sure that we have enough raw materials to supply demand, first locally and then throughout the country.’ 

Whether it’s cacti, seaweed or other as yet unexplored resources, Sandra believes that ‘it’s important to find a solution to pollution problems and probably part of that is to look for less toxic materials that can replace plastics.’ This is exactly the kind of sheer determination and out-of-the-box thinking that is surely the way ahead. 

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