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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Unilever, Co-Op, Waitrose Unveil ‘Clear’ Plastic Alternatives

Amidst a wave of negative public opinion on plastics and the waste associated with it, several companies have responded with commitments to reduce single-use plastics, combat marine plastic pollution, and support startups with

Amidst a wave of negative public opinion on plastics and the waste associated with it, several companies have responded with commitments to reduce single-use plastics, combat marine plastic pollution, and support startups with innovative solutions. Plastic waste has become an especially hot topic in the UK in the wake of BBC’s "Blue Planet II" series and the English government’s recent announcement that it would introduce a national deposit return scheme.

UK supermarket chains Waitrose and The Co-operative (Co-op) and are among the latest to stock plastic alternatives on their shelves.

Waitrose is building on its commitment to stop selling packs of disposable straws this September by replacing all plastic straws used in its onsite cafes with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper ones. An estimated 600,000 straws will be converted to home compostable material as a result.

“Phasing out single-use plastic straws in our cafes and on shelves shows how seriously we are taking their impact on the environment,” said Tor Harris, Waitrose’s head of sustainability and responsible sourcing. “Plastic straws may seem insignificant but their impact on wildlife can be devastating. We hope this step will make a positive contribution to our environment.”

Waitrose cafes also offer non-plastic cutlery and drink stirrers made from wood. Since 2009, Waitrose has reduced overall packaging by almost 50%, while 80% of its packaging is considered widely recyclable and fitted with the appropriate logo. The retailer has also reduced the amount of wood and recycled paper it uses for packaging by switching to blended materials such as the ryegrass egg cartons used for its Duchy Organic Range brand.

Meanwhile, the Co-op plans to switch all of its bottled water to 50% recycled plastic (rPET) and “test the water” to see whether today’s environmentally-conscious consumer is ready to ditch more aesthetically pleasing packaging. The bottles – which are 100% recyclable and being sourced in the UK – appear darker, greyer and cloudier than those using less or no recycled plastic. By making the change on all of its own brand still, sparkling and flavored water later this year, the Co-op estimates that it can save almost 350 tonnes of plastic annually.

“Suppliers are working hard to make the bottle clearer – in the meantime, our bottles will wear this greyish colour which I see as a ‘badge of honour’ – we are part of the market for recycled products, and we are proud of that,” said Iain Ferguson, Co-op Environment Manager.

“We’re also very pleased that plans for the proposed deposit return scheme have been formally unveiled. It’s a vitally important move in encouraging greater rates of recycling across the country and we welcome any measure which is designed to make recycling simpler and more accessible for consumers,” Ferguson added. “We would like to see the same system applied across the whole of the UK to keep it simple for customers and business - the Co-op is aiming to make 100% of its own-brand packaging recyclable and set against this move, we can look forward to an increase in packaging sustainability and a reduction in plastic waste across the UK.”

The deposit scheme seems all the more promising given new evidence that the introduction of a 5p charge for plastic bags led to an estimated 85% drop in disposable bags used at the UK’s biggest retailers and an estimated 30% drop in plastic bags on the seabed in a large area from close to Norway and Germany to northern France and west to Ireland.

The Co-op is also striving to reduce impacts of plastic packaging for other products. The retailer plans to eliminate black and dark-colored plastics from its aisles by 2020, since their pigment makes them more difficult for sorting machines to detect and results in over 30,000 tonnes of plastic added to landfills each year. The Co-op recently developed a fully-biodegradable paper tea bag for its 99 tea brand to help curb the nine tonnes of plastic waste caused by the nation’s favorite beverage.

Unilever also announced all of its tea bags will be plastic-free and 100% biodegradable shortly after the Co-op’s announcement. Continually lauded as a sustainability leader, the consumer goods giant joined 150 other organizations in calling for a global ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging and continues walking the talk to end deforestation in its supply chain, among other efforts to reduce the negative environmental impacts of packaging.

This week, Unilever announced a partnership with startup Ioniqa and the largest global produces of PET resin, Indorama Ventures, to pioneer a “breakthrough food packaging technology.” Worldwide, only around 20% of PET makes its way to recycling plants with the rest either incinerated, disposed of in landfills, or leaking into the natural environment. The new partnership hopes to change that with a proprietary technology developed by Ioniqa.

Ioniqa’s new technology is potentially capable of converting any PET waste – including colored bottles and packs – back into transparent virgin grade material. The non-recycled PET waste is broken down to base molecule level, and the colour and other contaminants are separated out. The molecules are converted back into PET which is equal to virgin grade quality. The company reports that its technology has successfully passed the pilot stage and is ready testing at an industrial scale at Indorama’s facility.

If successful, it could be possible to convert all PET back into high quality, food-grade packaging and repeat the process indefinitely – as a fully circular solution.

“We want all of our packaging to be fit for a world that is circular by design, stepping away from the take-make-dispose model that we currently live in. This innovation is particularly exciting because it could unlock one of the major barriers today – making all forms of recycled PET suitable for food packaging. Indeed, making the PET stream fully circular would be a major milestone towards this ambition, not just helping Unilever, but transforming industry at large,” said David Blanchard, Chief R&D Officer at Unilever.

This is only the latest of Unilever’s partnerships to deliver promising sustainable packaging solutions. Last year, for instance, the company developed a viable recycling solution for sachet waste in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Germany. Unilever has also worked closely with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation through its New Plastics Economy initiative and joined the How2Recycle label program. In 2017, Unilever committed to all of its plastic packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.