Following in their footsteps was Plastic Free July. The use of plastics and their disposal afterwards is an ongoing and important issue, which is why a full month was dedicated to the cause.
However, the messages behind these events should be kept in mind the whole year round. Everyone should continue to play their part, as individuals or as responsible businesses.
How is your business addressing the plastic waste issue? Whether you have managed to take action yet or not, here are some things you can do to not only reduce your plastic use but to replace single-use items of any kind.
Alternatives for single-use plastics
Many businesses are making big steps to reduce the amount of plastic that is used only once and then thrown away. You should also be doing the same for any single-use items. Anything that is used once then thrown away still creates unnecessary waste, which is the real heart of the issue.
Many food and drink retailers, including global chains, have already replaced their plastic straws with paper versions or ones made from other natural materials such as bamboo or wheat. This is a good start, but paper and other alternatives still need to be disposed of when thrown away after a single use. Reusable cups, cutlery and crockery would be a much better option for customers who sit in, as would encouraging takeaway customers to bring their own reusable take-away cups.
It has already become mandatory for retailers across the country to charge for issuing plastic carrier bags at the checkout, encouraging customers to bring their own reusable “bags for life” with them when they shop. We now need to build on this and keep finding ways to make changes.
If you haven’t already started taking similar steps then now is a great time to think about the single-use items that your company (and customers) use and how they can be replaced with more sustainable items.
De-plastic your workplace
No matter what the nature of your industry, there is always scope to reduce plastic use in the workplace.
In the office, you could start by analysing the waste and recycling setup to ensure you have the correct types and amount of bins and put systems in place to make all staff members aware of what goes into each bin. This will give you an idea of how many single-use products you actually use and where you can start to implement changes to reduce the amount of waste created by your business.
Next, take a look through your office kitchen to determine if there are any plastic items, such as cutlery and dishware, that can be upgraded to reusable and longer-lasting alternatives. Real metal and ceramic items that can be washed and reused are by far the best option.
Even your furniture can come from sustainable sources. Find desks and chairs that are made from reused materials (e.g. from construction projects), or that are surplus to requirements elsewhere – you don’t always have to buy brand new products.
Further changes could include:
- Making sure any consumables, stationery and office items have been manufactured from recycled contents, not virgin materials
- Using only recycled paper for printing and writing
- Replacing single-use paper towels with hand dryers in your bathrooms
Always ask yourself: if it isn’t possible to reuse or repurpose, then what is the next best alternative and the least environmentally damaging?
Change what you serve and what you order
Along with changing your internal plastic use, find ways in which you can make switches from a customer-facing point of view.
If you sell or serve food:
- Ask customers to bring their own reusable water bottles, take-away containers or coffee cups
- Display your perishable items in reusable containers instead of plastic wrap
- Swap single-use condiments out for refillable bottles.
Take a fresh look at your menu and ask yourself:
- Are people leaving food because your portions are too large?
- Are you serving things that people don’t eat (like certain salad or garnish items)?
- Do you buy ingredients for meals that rarely sell, yet you offer them “just in case”?
- Do you over-order and end up throwing away certain ingredients?
Think big as well as small — use suppliers with sustainability systems in place. Work with your supplier to help remove plastic and single-use cardboard packaging from the supply chain. Ask if you can implement a reusable tote or crate system for deliveries instead.
Do more than just reduce, reuse, recycle
The message behind Plastic Free July is to follow the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. We feel there is actually a bit more to it than this.
Yes, you should recycle everything that can be recycled, but recycling plastics doesn’t actually get to the heart of the problem. It’s not enough to just replace plastic either, you need to identify the impact of what you are replacing plastics with.
There are so-called bio-plastics, which are made from plant-based and other biological materials, but these can be just as detrimental as any other plastic. They don’t break down properly during composting and also do not decompose when landfilled (landfills are actually designed to stop most aerobic biodegradation), as many people have come to believe. They still find their way into the oceans or litter our streets. In addition, they are still single-use items requiring disposal after just a single use, which we are trying to reduce the production and use of overall.
Any single-use item is a poor environmental choice, regardless of whether it is plastic, paper, wood, metal, or any other material. The real focus should be on replacing these disposable or throwaway items with long-lasting and reusable alternatives.
Plastic Free July has been a timely reminder about reducing the use of plastics, but this should not be where it ends.
A global treaty is currently in the works to end the production of new or “virgin” plastic by 2040, but until then we all need to play our parts in reducing the amount of plastic that is currently in use.
All unnecessary packaging and manufacturing can be reduced, as can our constant buying behaviour – do we really need new phones and cars so often, for example?
So reduce and reuse what you can, and recycle the rest. Only as a last resort should something be thrown away as waste. We can, however, use this waste to generate energy, avoiding landfill disposal. We generate energy from the food waste we collect, for example, as well as from non-recyclable general waste.