Every day, Americans alone use enough straws to wrap around the world 2.5 times (Straw Hopper, n.d)
Every single day, approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution enter our oceans. (SAS Organisation, n.d)
100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million seabirds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.
Studies predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight. (Straw Hopper, n.d)
These are only some facts about what plastic pollution is doing to our world. Since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet revealed the impact plastic is doing to our oceans, the shift in attitude has been dramatically changed. The entire society – government, media, supermarkets, celebrities, etc is striving to clamp down on plastic waste (Gilbert, 2018). Therefore, the use of plastic alternative in daily life is growing rapidly and have some major impacts on our society. The impacts on the meso level will be described below according to two different aspects: the consumers and the business.
Nowadays, consumers are more concerned about the use of plastic packaging when making a purchase. According to a survey of more than 5000 U.K consumers by Kantar Worldpanel, 24.6% of them expressed ‘extreme concern’ about plastic packaging in grocery, 42% believed food and drink manufacturers should primarily make all their packaging recyclable. The result also shows that 83.3% of respondents claimed to use reusable shopping bags while purchasing in supermarkets and stores. (Gilbert, 2018)
More customers have also begun bringing their containers with them when buying takeaway food in restaurants (Maynard, n.d). When going to a café, customers also bring their inox straws, takeaway coffee cups and utensils set. At New York-based cafe and restaurant Maman, customers get a 10% discount when they bring their own coffee cups. (Settembre, 2019)
Since customer’s demand towards plastic-free products are growing rapidly. Brands are pressured dramatically on cutting down the use of plastic packaging or ensuring that it is recyclable (Gilbert, 2018). Multinational corporations are taking steps to reduce or entirely eliminate plastic straws. For instance, McDonald’s is banning plastic straws in all of its restaurants in the UK and Ireland.
Starbucks has recently developed and manufactured a recyclable strawless lid, which is currently in use in more than 8,000 Starbucks stores in the U.S and Canada. This strawless lid will be used for all Starbucks iced drinks, except for the Frappuccino, which will be served with a straw made from other sustainable materials (Starbucks, 2018). Of course, customers who prefer or need a straw can request one made of alternative materials. By doing this, Starbucks is planning to completely phase out plastic straws from its more than 28,000 stores worldwide by 2020.
“It sounds dramatic, but the lid is going to get used about a billion times a year. It’s going to take billions of single-use plastic straws off the market,” said Corlett, Starbucks director of global packaging solutions and innovations (Warnick, 2018). And Starbucks is only one of many brands that are taking steps right to find the best materials for plastic replacement.
New products and new opportunities for brands
Customer preference for plastic-free products also opens up a lot of new opportunity and business. Many new products and new business fields have been born and/or have been affected by this trend. For example, the bamboo toothbrush, pasta straw, inox straw, bamboo straw, glass spray bottle, beeswax food wraps, are some products that you would probably never hear of 5 years ago. (Zero Waste Store, n.d). Companies such as The Plastic Free Shop, Zero Waste stores where they sell 100% plastic-free goods are also getting more customers by this trend. And for instance, growing consumer awareness about the environmental and sustainability issues regarding food packaging is driving the food container market towards growth. (Reuters, 2018)
Why did it happen?
History of plastic and how did it take over the world?
The first plastic products were invented in 1870 by John Wesley Hyatt. Other plastic compounds took hold in the following decades. The Americans were still using paper straws when plastic manufacturing began to take hold. Nevertheless, because of its cheap, strong, flexible and durable characteristics, plastic straws quickly became a replacement for paper. (Gibbens, 2019)
Throughout the 1960s, the manufacturing infrastructure to mass-produce plastic straws was put into place. “It truly was a better product at a cheaper price, and in that era, no one looked at the future impact it would have on our environment.” said David Rhodes, the global business director for paper straw manufacturer Aardvark Straws.
Why it becomes a problem?
The majority of products are still following the linear model of consumption which products get manufactured, bought, used once for its purpose and then thrown away (Unilever, n.d). And when it comes to plastic, that’s a problem since it never really breaks down. Plastic only slowly fragments into smaller pieces and ends up microscopic. A piece of plastic used for a couple of minutes could last 100 – 300 years to fragment in the marine environments, which can be deadly for wildlife since they become entangled or mistake it for food. And with 1 in 3 fish caught for human consumption now containing plastic, I assumed there is no further explanation needed. (SAS Organisation, n.d). And even if you do not eat fish, 70% of our oxygen is produced by marine plants, so unless you do not need to breathe, we still need to take care of our oceans!
At this moment, there are about 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic in the oceans, weighing 269,000 tons, which is about 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy (SAS Organisation, n.d) which makes finding better replacements for plastic that brings no harm for the world is an absolutely vital necessity than ever.
But plastic isn’t completely bad. While many of us focus too much on the downside of plastic, we seem to forget the benefits that plastic was designed to achieve in the first place, said Wrap, director Peter Maddox. “Plastic plays a vital role in preserving and protecting food and helping citizens get the best out of what they buy and is inextricable in the fight against food waste.” he continued. In addition to that, plastic can be incredibly useful for the health industry. Diabetics use it for their disposable syringes and arthritic patients also use plastic for their replaced hips. The big problem is single-use plastics that we quickly throw away after only one use (SAS Organisation, n.d)
Therefore, no matter with any solutions human are coming up with, “it needs to be system-wide and ensures that we retain the benefits that plastic was designed to achieve in the first place, whilst reducing the untenable damage plastic waste does to the environment,” said Wrap (Gilbert, 2018). Therefore, perhaps redesigning plastic packaging instead of eliminating it completely isn’t a bad idea!
Future: on professional and personal levels.
In the near future, the world will still work on finding and testing the best plastic alternatives materials in the ability. Because the current plastic alternative materials used now are still not the best. For instance, the paper straws get soggy while using. So that these materials can be used widely in daily life, cutting down the production cost is also a big challenge, since plastic is a cheap material.
Finding the alternatives for plastic isn’t the only one solution. A new report by McKinsey, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that applying the circular economy principles to the global plastic packaging flows could reshape the material’s economy as well as reduce the negative impacts such as leakage into oceans (McKinsey, 2016). Redesigning plastic and apply the circular economy, which literally means creating a closed-looped process where products are created and then can be reused or recycled over and over again rather than being used once (Unilever, n.d), is also realistic and useful in the mission toward a more sustainable world.
The circular economy benefits for business are also clear. “More effective use of materials means lower costs and less waste. It means new sources of value for customers and citizens, better risk management of raw materials, and improved approaches to the supply chain.” (Unilever, n.d) Unilever will be one of the big companies that will apply the circular economy for its business in the near future “We committed to ensuring that 100% of our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025”, (Unilever, n.d)
So the solutions for plastic in the future will not only be about finding alternatives, but also ensure that what we use can be reused and recycled.
On the educational perspective, no one really thinks about the consequences of what they do to the environment in the past. But in this era and the upcoming future, every single child is being educated seriously on this matter and how essential protecting the environment must be. Living a zero-waste, plastic-free life will replicate more and more, especially among the younger generations.
What does it mean to me?
On a professional level, this trend opens a lot of new business opportunities for my generation. It influences other business and also gives brands a chance to enhance their images. As someone who is studying and specializing in Communication, I think it’s really important for myself to find a proper way to bring awareness, tell a great story and inspire others. And therefore, it’s especially important to learn more about sustainability and green marketing strategy.
Since consumers are environmentally conscious, they will also want to purchase from businesses who think like them. Thus, I personally think sustainability marketing will be a crucial marketing tactic for businesses that want to attract consumers with mindsets toward the environment. Building relationships with consumers, letting them know that they are important, and so are the future will be the standards for marketing communication in the future, which is especially important to be aware of for a marketing-oriented student like myself.
On a personal perspective, this trend means a lot to me since I also belong to those generations that are seeing how plastic pollution damage our world. I also recently started living more sustainable and care more about my wastes, which isn’t easy. Bringing my own straw bundle set when going to a cafe is absolutely not a usual habit, but as an individual, I know that I am contributing to making a difference in the world. And if every single person is making a small change, you will change something bigger. It will raise awareness and give others the courage to do it. Just like David Attenborough who started raising awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans, and now the entire world is aware of it.
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it” – Robert Swan
Take action today!
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