Top 3: Plastic Free

 The war on plastic continues to gather pace. From a government-discussed plastic packaging tax to a recent BBC mini series watch by millions, public pressure is at an all-time high for the powers that be to take action. But with supermarkets seeming reluctant to respond with anything other than vague rhetoric the opportunity has been seized by many in the natural products sector to lead the revolution. Tom Smart got out there and profiled some of those doing their best to pioneer a plastic-free future. 

The headlines carry serious shock factor, as does the inevitable photographic accompaniment. But what makes plastic pollution so emotive, and hence what has fuelled its rise to continually prominent news article is that it is relatable and personal. Plastic is tangible, unlike the arguably more pressing issue of carbon dioxide fuelled climate change. Plastic invades every part of our lives as consumers and we come into contact with it every day. There’s a constant reminder and an obvious way out. 

So while the public begin to make changes in their lifestyles as a result of increased awareness their lives are being made easier by producer innovation, particularly in the natural products sector. Here are our top 3: 

1.    Just Natural Plastic Free Packaging

Looks like plastic, feels like plastic. Not plastic.

Just Natural produce a whole range of nuts, oats, dried fruits and seeds in compostable packaging. It is made from a mixture of cellulose film (from tree pulp) and polylactic acid (from sugar cane), making it 100% plant based and therefore compostable. They aren’t the only ones out there doing something like this, but they have been one of the quickest to market. 

We are excited by these products mainly with small, independent retailers and online businesses in mind. The main argument against these products would surely be that they aren’t needed at all; a store could simply offer refill options that negate the need for packaging altogether. 

Refill stations though, while fantastic, do come with their own set of issues that the compostable packaging does not. For starters there is the risk of product contamination or spoilage, as well as shorter shelf lives and the necessity for some form of refillable vessel scheme. For a small retailer this represents a potentially-serious liability that renders them a pipe dream. Then there are the logistics of packaging loose produce for home delivery or courier, which in a world where more and more business moves online, is a serious consideration. 

Sure reducing packaging would be better, but in the here and now a compostable, plant-based option is a winner in our book. 

2.    Ooho!

This one feels straight out of a science-fiction novel, but while some way off mass production gives an idea of the possibilities available for phasing out single-use cups, sauce sachets and cartons.

Ooho! pouches are made mainly from brown seaweed, which is a rapidly growing plant and therefore a great, sustainable option for a material. They work by enclosing the product, such as water, ketchup, salad dressing etc in a tough film, which is both edible and biodegradable. 

The possibilities therefore are endless – this could be the future of snacks and on-the-go products where the packaging can either be consumed or composted depending on consumer preference. They are even developing a film to line cardboard takeaway trays, which could spell the end of the polystyrene throw away box. Superb news. 

3.    Olio

This is a very quirky idea that uses a smartphone app to advertise surplus food in a community, giving it a use rather than condemning it to a bin. Connecting people in a bid to lower food waste might not feel like a plastic-free movement, however by reducing the amount of food that goes into the bin, we reduce the amount that needs to be purchased. A shift in mindset with regards to plastic rather than simply looking for alternatives that do not address our throw-away consumerist lifestyles. 

The statistics on food waste are staggering. According to Olio’s own website, over 1/3 of food produced globally goes to waste, and if it were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. These stats might seem promotional, but the references check out. 

Solving the food waste problem goes further than reducing plastic waste, it reduces emissions as well. There could also be a model for retailers here; perhaps a food bank or ‘too good to go in the bin’ section with a nominal charge. A time in-store where leftovers are shared, thereby uniting a community in a natural products store. Pushing for this paradigm shift should bring plastic waste down with it. 

This paradigm shift may well be what is required in the long run. Because while our battle against plastic, while clearly well-intended and noble in cause, could be short sighted in its push for alternatives rather than changes. 

The environmental impacts of plastic alternatives could be more damaging than the plastics themselves according to many recent reports, including one by propaganda-led environmentalists Coca-Cola, as reported in a recent blog. Glass, often touted as the quick fix to plastic use, comes with a huge carbon footprint because of the additional mass in transit. It is however one of the simplest materials to recycle, which at least helps with the waste issue. 

Producers, retailers and distributors should all feel the heavy weight of responsibility to stay at the fore-front of the plastic-free revolution. Not only for environmental reasons and in response to the demands of their customers, but also because it could soon be a fiscal necessity, with many governments discussing higher taxes on plastic packaging.

 The natural products industry is doing great things in its bid to eradicate plastic. Long may it continue.