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Plastic-Free July: Talking Solutions for Businesses and Consumers

 Plastic-Free July is a worldwide annual initiative aimed at reducing the use of single-use plastics and encouraging businesses and consumers to find more responsible alternatives.

Waste360 spoke with Christy Leavitt, Oceana’s plastics campaign director, to learn more about the companies that are doing this well now and what else can be done. Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. We talk reuse, policy and the momentum that is building around the plastics crisis.

Waste360: As part of the plastics-crisis campaign, you use the powerful statistic that, "A garbage truck's worth of plastic ends up in the ocean every minute." Over the past few years, are you seeing real momentum among companies that understand the magnitude of the problem and their role in being part of the solution?

Awareness around the plastic pollution problem, and the desire to address it, has spread greatly over the last few years among both consumers and decision-makers — but we need that acknowledgment to translate into meaningful corporate and political action.

While many smaller companies are innovating their products in ways that don’t require plastic packaging, the multinational companies that supply Americans with most of their everyday items have been stubbornly clinging to recycling commitments and waste-management solutions that have proven unsuccessful for decades.

When pressed on the issue, executives of these large corporations will freely express their concern around plastic pollution, but they refuse to pivot from plastic to sustainable — preferably refillable and reusable — alternatives. We need companies to do more than acknowledge the issue; we need them to commit to real reductions in their use of plastic. And we need policymakers to pass legislation on the local, state and federal level to ensure they do so.

Waste360: What are the main hurdles you’ve seen for companies that wish to incorporate refillable or reusable programs but do not know where to start?

For a company to pivot from plastic packaging to refillable or reusable alternatives, they often need to re-envision how a product is delivered to — and sometimes collected from — the consumer. We’re already seeing this kind of innovation across multiple economic sectors, with companies establishing new business models to change how we consume.

For example:

  • The Wally Shop in Brooklyn, New York, has implemented a reusable delivery system to deliver groceries to customers in reusable packaging like organic cotton mesh bags, resealable glass jars and totes. The company charges a fee per piece of reusable packaging provided, and the price of this deposit is deducted from the customer’s next delivery, at which point old packaging is taken back to be cleaned and reused.
  • Loop is experimenting with a new business model that uses reusable product containers. The company delivers packaged consumer goods, including food, in reusable containers to customers for a deposit. It offers products from dozens of brands — detergent, shampoo, mouthwash and even groceries — in steel, glass and durable plastic reusable containers. The products arrive in a Loop Tote, and used containers are placed back in the tote and left on the doorstep for pickup. Loop’s product containers are then cleaned, refilled and shipped out again.
  • In Switzerland, consumers can pay for reusable to-go cups and containers when they order takeout at any of 1,000-plus restaurants that have partnered with the company reCIRCLE. Through reCIRCLE, these items can be returned to any other partner restaurant for a full refund, at which point they’ll be washed and provided to the next customer. Customers can also choose to keep the containers or take them home and reuse them before returning.
  • Refill stations have also started popping up for consumer goods. For example, Ecopod refill stations in Florida supply eco-friendly laundry detergent, fabric softener, liquid dish soap, dishwasher gel and all-purpose cleaner. Customers bring their empty Ecopod containers to the refill kiosks and select what they would like dispensed.

Companies like these have provided a jumping-off point for the world’s necessary switch to a zero-waste economy, creating innovative business models that prove we can move away from throwaway living. A “refill and reuse” economy is in our sights. As more corporations follow the lead of plastic-free pioneers by transitioning to new ways of packaging products, we’ll finally be on the path to safeguarding this planet for future generations.

Waste360: And what are the main hurdles in getting customers to adapt refillable, reusable, or plastic-free packaging and products? (For instance, is there still a need for significant investment in customer education to get people to understand why it is important to look for these kinds of solutions, or is it more important to show them how/how easy it is to make these sorts of changes?)

The biggest obstacle in shifting from a throwaway society to a refillable, reusable, zero-waste one is getting companies to break free from plastic and innovate. Consumers have long expressed dissatisfaction with companies’ excessive use of single-use plastic, yet the world’s largest corporations have resisted evolution and instead relied on plastic recycling and other inadequate solutions. Public support for plastic-free products has been clear, with 55% of Americans believing companies are not doing enough to reduce plastic waste, and two-thirds of Americans expressing a willingness to pay more for everyday items made out of environmentally sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic.

Oceana has also conducted polls outside of the U.S. showing consumer support for corporate and political action to reduce single-use plastic. A poll released last month by Oceana Canada revealed that 86% of Canadians support a national ban on single-use plastics by 2021 — up from a reported 81% last year. Our Oceana Europe colleagues last year polled U.K. residents, 83% of whom believed businesses were not doing enough to reduce plastic waste, and 74% of whom thought the government is doing too little to curb plastic in the oceans.

Waste360: Can you tell us more about Oceana's vision for reusable packaging and delivery systems – and how to make these viable on a mass scale? 

It's absolutely possible for companies to make reusable packaging and delivery systems viable on a mass scale. Don't forget: We once lived without plastic. Beverage companies, for example, once relied entirely on refillable bottle systems — there's no reason we can't do that today while applying new technologies to increase sustainability and convenience for consumers.

Many companies have already provided a jumping-off point for the world's necessary switch to a zero-waste economy, creating innovative business models that prove we can move away from throwaway living.

It’s critical that companies sufficiently invest in programs testing new reusable/refillable business models so that consumers are offered enough of the products they want, with the convenience they expect, to make the program viable. Take Loop for example. A consumer is unlikely to pay the deposit for a Loop Tote delivery if the online store doesn’t offer enough relevant products to fill the tote and make it worth it. Reusable/refillable business models will succeed if consumers are given the options they need, and that requires companies currently relying on single-use plastic to invest in the future.

Some companies like Ecopod, Lush, and Blueland are having success with product-refill models and/or removing excess water and eliminating the need for plastic packaging. Are you seeing any similar developments/R&D from any of the larger players in the cleaning- or personal-care products arena? What would you say to a big company that says, "Our customers want to buy our product in the same container they have always bought it in?"

While the switch from plastic-packaged shampoo, conditioner and body wash to plastic-free bars started with smaller companies like Lush, we’re slowly seeing larger players get on board. For example, L’Oreal announced last month that it plans to introduce more sustainable products like solid shampoo bars under its flagship Garnier brand. While L’Oreal’s plan to transition to zero-waste packaging for some of its products is admirable, we need to see a broader commitment to ditching single-use plastic packaging — whether it’s recyclable or not — among leading consumer goods providers.

Waste360: Do you have any examples of companies that have seen costs go down and/or profits go up when they have moved away from single-use plastics?

Lush discovered that by nixing plastic packaging, they actually saved money — which they could then invest into extra staff and training. More from their website: “Some time ago a TV company asked us to cost a typical shower gel for a consumer program. In doing this it became obvious that the packaging was a larger part of the manufacturing cost than the contents, and that the bottle label and lid cost more than twice the shower gel itself.”

This 2019 “Reuse” report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation also lays out business benefits of reusable delivery systems, including “Superior user experiences, user insights, brand loyalty and cost savings.” It lists those benefits specific to each company example it provides.

Waste360: What would you say to companies who are focusing their "sustainability" efforts on using ocean plastic in their products and packaging?

Ocean plastic is going to last for many years, so it doesn’t hurt for companies to make something useful out of it, but recycling, upcycling and cleaning up plastic in the ocean and on beaches will never solve the plastic pollution problem. With plastic production rates projected to quadruple between 2014 and 2050, we can expect increasingly more plastic to flood our oceans, choke marine life and end up in our water, soil, food and air. Only 9% of the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled, and much of the plastic produced every year isn’t recyclable anyway. To stop the massive amount of plastic flooding our oceans, we need companies to prioritize the one real solution to this crisis: reducing the amount of single-use plastic they produce and use. 

Waste360:  As part of its plastics-crisis campaign, Oceana recently helped in the passing of New York state's ban on styrofoam food and beverage containers and the use of plastic foam packaging peanuts. What is next as far as a particular project or regional effort your team is focused on?

Part of our local- and state-level policy work includes fighting preemption in Florida, where the state legislature has increasingly restricted the ability of cities and counties to govern by passing preemption laws around policies it dislikes, including those that regulate single-use plastics. Local governments have a right to make their own decisions about the regulation of single-use plastic. Their communities are directly affected when plastic contaminates their coastlines and waterways, and these cities and towns are also bearing the costs of managing plastic waste, so they should have the authority to regulate it.

We're urging the state legislature and Gov. DeSantis to put an end to this disturbing trend and place the authority to ban plastic with local governments.

In California, we’re working to pass the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act, which would be the first state-level bill to mandate source reduction of single-use packaging and disposable foodware, including plates, bowls, cups, stirrers and straws. The bill would require producers to reduce waste from single-use packaging and foodware by 75% by 2030 through source reduction, recycling and composting.

In addition to continuing to push for single-use plastic policies on the local and state level, Oceana is actively working to grow awareness and support around the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, the first-ever comprehensive federal legislation that reduces the production and use of single-use plastic and holds companies responsible for the plastic waste they create.

There isn't a place on Earth untouched by plastic. One way individuals can make a difference during Plastic-Free July is by showing their support for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, the first-ever federal legislation that stops plastic pollution at the source by reducing the use of single-use plastic and holding companies accountable for their waste. There is a petition in support of this federal legislation here. 

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