Pioneering a Plastic-Free Future: Beyond the Three Rs

Welcome to Plastic Free July, a global movement dedicated to reducing plastic pollution! While many of us know the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – there are two more powerful steps that look at how to Replace plastic and even how we can Restore nature and remove plastic pollution. Together, that means a complete plastic detox!
 
Join us as we delve into each stage, looking at what you can do to help, and showcase some exciting ways countries are using innovation and new technologies to address the plastic crisis. Despite the scale of the plastic problem, it’s exciting to see the different ways people around the world are starting to tackle it. 

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Replace and Restore

Reduce 

The first step in tackling plastic pollution is to reduce our overall consumption of plastic. This can be achieved through legislation, awareness campaigns, and individual actions. 

For individuals this could be not using single-use water bottles, choosing food items with less packaging when we shop, or buying plastic alternatives such as plastic-free bathroom products. If we reduce what we use, we reduce the demand for products containing plastics. 

CASE STUDY: Plastic bag ban in Kenya 

One way that countries have seen big reductions in plastic use is a straightforward ban. Every year in Kenya, tens of millions of plastic bags were distributed in supermarkets. These bags polluted the environment and clogged drainage systems, contributing to floods during the rainy season. A study supported by the National Environmental Management Agency (Nema) found that more than 50% of cattle near urban areas were found to have plastic bags in their stomachs.  

So in 2017, Kenya introduced one of the world’s strictest plastic bag bans. Under this law, anyone found manufacturing, importing or selling a plastic carrier bag could be fined up to $40,000 (£32,000) or face a prison sentence of up to four years. Using the banned bags carries a fine of more than $500 or a jail term of up to a year. This drastic measure has significantly reduced plastic bag usage in the country, setting a precedent for other nations to follow. 

Reuse 

The second stage focuses on reusing plastic products to extend their lifecycle and minimise waste. This could be carrier bags, bottles or plastic containers. It could also be wearing our clothes for longer, as synthetic fibres in clothing account for 10% of all plastic usage. The ‘reuse’ principle is being increasingly applied to various consumer goods, encouraging the adoption of refillable containers. 

CASE STUDY: Refill stations in Indonesia 

Globally one of the best ways to reuse plastic is with refills which are becoming more and more common. In Indonesia, Unilever has pioneered a refillable system for 11 of its most popular brands, ranging from soap to soy sauce. Shoppers can bring their reusable containers to in-store refill stations, where products are dispensed directly into a shopper’s reusable container. This approach not only reduces packaging waste but also promotes a circular economy. 

Increasing public awareness of the environmental benefits, along with the ability to purchase products in any quantity, large or small, at affordable prices, has resulted in a rise of packaging-free and bulk-buy stores across Indonesia. 

Recycle 

Recycling remains a critical component of managing plastic waste, for when we must buy or use plastic. Indeed it’s what most people think of when they’re taking action on plastic. Whilst recycling is preferable to incineration or landfill, plastic cannot be recycled forever (unlike metal). So, recycling delays, rather than avoids, landfill. According to the OECD, only 9% of plastic is being successfully recycled globally (although it’s much higher in countries such as Germany showing what can be achieved). 

CASE STUDY: Recycling credits in Beijing 

Beijing has implemented an innovative recycling initiative in its subway system, where passengers can exchange plastic bottles for subway credits, at 34 “reverse” vending machines throughout the city. Machines take your used water bottles, calculate their worth (depending on the plastics’ quality) and issue a credit (anywhere from 5 to 15 cents) to a public transport pass or for extra mobile phone minutes. This not only incentivises recycling but also integrates waste management into everyday life, making it more accessible and convenient for citizens. These sort of deposit return schemes are growing in popularity worldwide. 

Replace 

Replacing and diversifying means transitioning from traditional petroleum-based plastics to a range of alternative materials that are more environmentally friendly. 

These alternatives could offer specific advantages, such as being compostable, having a lower carbon footprint to produce, or being more easily recyclable, to promote a more sustainable lifecycle for products that are currently made from plastics. Some examples include: 

  • Cork: Cork is harvested from tree bark without cutting down the tree and can be re-harvested every 14 years. Once the cork is stripped from the tree’s bark, it absorbs 3–5 times more CO2 than normal. It can be recycled or composted. It is waterproof, plus it has anti-microbial properties making it effective against mold, mildew, and pests. It is a durable, versatile and sustainable material used in everything from flooring to fashion.  
  • Coconut: The global production of coconuts is huge, but most of them are currently incinerated or disposed of in landfills. Products like coconut bowls, mugs and cutlery offer a biodegradable alternative to plastic. Plus, the recycling process for coconut is relatively straightforward, making it an adaptable and environmentally benign alternative to plastic. 
     
  • Bamboo: Bamboo’s rapid growth rate makes it an excellent, renewable substitute for plastic in items like toothbrushes, cutlery, tissues, straws and towels. Bamboo groves may rejuvenate themselves within 3 to 5 years and thrive without the application of pesticides. It is also exceptionally robust and biodegradable. 
     
  • Corn: Just like bamboo, corn (maize) can yield a material known as PLA, which has gradually replaced plastic for utensils, cups, and plates. PLA is derived from cornstarch processing, resulting in amber-colored, 100% biodegradable bioplastic. 
     
  • Cow Dung: Innovative entrepreneurs are even using cow dung to create biodegradable products. This is achieved by completely deconstructing the dung and by extracting materials from it (eg cellulose). The most common applications use dung in combination with other components to create materials such as bio-plastic, paper or concrete. 

CASE STUDY: Clothing from Nettles in the UK 

England’s King Charles has joined forces with eco textile designers, Vin + Omi, to develop a line of clothing made from nettles sourced from the royal grounds at his Gloucestershire home. 

This new project, aptly named ‘Sting’, aims to challenge the fast fashion industry while celebrating British heritage. In Asia, nettle fabric is quite common, but elsewhere is rarely used in fashion. The resulting fabric has a light, airy texture, unrecognisable as nettle, demonstrating the potential to create contemporary garments from waste materials. An extreme example of the options to replace normal plastic and apparently the clothes don’t sting!

Restore 

Addressing the existing plastic waste, or dealing with the legacy, involves innovative solutions to manage and mitigate the impact of plastics already in the environment.

This includes managing the vast amounts of plastic waste accumulated in landfills and oceans, which can persist for hundreds of years, causing pollution and harm to wildlife. Efforts to handle this legacy involve cleanup initiatives, recycling programs, and innovative technologies to break down existing plastic waste. Some examples include: 

  • Amazon Fungus: Scientists have discovered a fungus in the Amazon rainforest that that feeds on and can live off plastic. It contains bacteria that can biodegrade and break down synthetic plastic polymers. It can survive in both oxygenated and oxygen-free environments, which makes it an ideal candidate for tackling compacted plastic-laden landfills. 
     
  • Pyrolysis: Companies like Brightmark and Plastic Energy are using advanced pyrolysis processes to convert non-recyclable plastics into valuable fuels, chemicals, and new plastics. This not only reduces plastic waste but also provides an alternative energy source. Plastic pyrolysis technology has the potential to create a plastics’ circular economy in the coming years. 
     
  • Water Filtration: In Germany, companies like Wassar 3.0 are developing advanced filtration systems to remove microplastics from water, addressing one of the more insidious forms of plastic pollution. The process involves creating a vortex in a tank of water. A compound is added, which acts as a clumping agent, drawing together any microplastics into lumps that rise to the surface, which can be skimmed off using a sieve. Currently the average person eats 70,000 microplastics each year!! 

What can you do? Start with a litter pick or beach clean in your local area looking out for bottles, plastic tops and more. It is good for the environment and you’ll also be protecting nature as animals die every year from eating, or getting trapped in plastic.

CASE STUDY: Making furniture from plastic waste in Vietnam 

PLASTICpeople in Vietnam transforms low-grade hard-to-recycle plastic waste into a strong, safe and sustainable material for furniture and construction for use worldwide. 

All their products are recycled from domestic and industrial waste like plastic bags, milk cartons, plastic cups and boxes, and even fabric from medical masks. Every day, they recycle 1-1.5 tons of plastic waste, which is delivered from recycling companies, scrap collectors, organisations and individuals.  

They have developed a circular solution to clean up the environment, while creating meaningful jobs for the community. Their products include construction materials and furniture and homewares that grace cafes and offices in Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan and Spain. 
 
Another example is Wricks in India, who are using plastic waste to make eco-friendly bricks, known as Wricks, which are used in construction. 

Plastic Free July is a timely reminder of the critical need to address plastic pollution through a multifaceted approach. By embracing the five stages above, we can make significant strides towards a more sustainable future. Each stage requires collective effort and innovative thinking, and the global examples highlighted here demonstrate that change is not only possible but already underway. We all need to do our part and together, we can reduce our plastic footprint and pave the way for a cleaner, greener planet.