Turning down the tap on new
Almost every crisis we face can be linked back to excessive consumption of resources by some at the expense of everyone, and everything, living on our planet.
The quickest and best way to address this is not to invent new ways of making throw away products and materials.
Our priority has to be to reduce our extraction and consumption of new materials – whether those materials are made from fossil fuels, leather, seaweed, bamboo, potato starch or wood.
We also have to keep existing products and materials in use for longer – reuse is the revolution we need.
Investing in reuse
Julia Davies has invested in a collective of young and innovative businesses laser focused on making single-use waste and over production of new goods a bad memory from the past. Many of these businesses work together as part of a Reuse Collective to share experience, knowledge and support, to prove and enable hassle-free reuse solutions which are sustainable and make good business sense.
These businesses are putting their all into trying to make reuse work, but they are doing this in a system that is stacked against them. A system that makes linear single use, over production of new and throw away more cost effective – because currently the costs associated with the negative impact of single use/new goods on our planet and society are not charged to the corporates producing and encouraging this.
Indeed our system currently subsidises single use – with the public (and our wildlife and environment) bearing the cost of collecting single use rubbish and disposing of it.
It’s not just about plastic
We can’t reduce dangerous climate change, environmental damage and biodiversity loss without drastically reducing consumption of new and moving from a linear extract, consume, dump society to a circular economy.
A collective of great start-up companies (many of whom have been invested in by Julia) make this shift by:-
- Offering reuse solutions for packaging and single use items – Dizzie, Again, Spruce, ecoeats, Junee
- Providing reusable alternatives to single use items – Revolution-ZERO (PPE), &Sisters (period pants), Skybluepink Eco Baby (nappies)
- Making buying second hand as easy and enjoyable as buying new – The Cirkel, Used & Loved, Thrift+, The Charity Shop Gift Card, Thriftify, Re-Action, thelittleloop
- Renting instead of selling – Library of Things
- Reducing food waste – nibsetc. , Oddbox
- Retrofitting high environmental footprint items instead of manufacturing new – Kleanbus
Plastic not fantastic
David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series was great at getting people to wake up to the harm caused by plastics in our oceans. But despite all the hand wringing – people continue to use and dispose of more and more single use plastic and that has to stop.
Why is plastic so bad?
Precisely because plastic is so good! It can last for centuries – using it for a product like a fork, stirrer, straw, drinks bottle, food packaging – intended to be used for minutes and then thrown away – is madness. Using it in plumbing materials or reusable containers or reusable PPE or period pants, where longevity is a good thing, makes complete sense.
Plastic is made from oil. As we move away from oil to renewables for our fuel – the fossil fuel industry see single use plastic as a replacement market. The plastic lobby pushed single use plastic as a wonder solution to the pandemic. We need to push back hard against their attempts to roll back the progress we were making in reducing demand for single use plastic items like carrier bags, coffee cups and water bottles.
So is recycling the solution?
No it’s not. The fizzy drinks industry are trying to green up their image by telling us that their plastic drinks bottles are recyclable. But, in December 2018, Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society stated that only about nine percent of all plastic ever made has likely been recycled.
When it comes to plastic, recycling is pretty much a load of rubbish – we’ve been sold a fairy story as explained so well in this article.
Even with glass and aluminium – recycling is high carbon and expensive compared to reuse, provided a proper reuse system is in place.
The 9 Rs
The 9R’s identify the various shades towards a circular economy.
There has been too much focus on recycling – and that has lulled people into thinking that single use is okay.
Multiple studies including Greenpeace’s recent Big Plastic Count have shown how little single use waste actually gets recycled.
The Big Plastic Count Results: How citizen science exposed a system incapable of tackling the plastic crisis
We need to show how reuse can happen so that all that focus on recycling can pivot to focus on reuse.
What about biodegradable/non-plastic alternatives?
Sorry – but these are still rubbish and should only be considered where reuse really isn’t an option – think dog poo bags or bin liners.
Think of a wooden disposable fork. Made from a tree chopped down somewhere – in a factory – probably in Asia – transported in a lorry to the docks – into a shipping container – transported across the globe – to another dock – into another lorry – to a warehouse – into another lorry – to a shop – into a car – to a BBQ – to be used for a few minutes – then thrown away. Or – go to cutlery drawer – take out fork – use fork – wash fork – return to cutlery drawer!
Many so-called biodegradable coffee cups, packaging etc. only biodegrade under very specific circumstances. Dropped on our beaches or countryside they can still take years to break down and in the meantime are a hazard to wildlife. Plus they are still a waste of resources.
Compostable bags put into doorstep food waste bins can cause the waste to be rejected for composting as it looks like plastic contamination. If you don’t have home composting it’s probably best to put compostable plastic in general rubbish, although some companies like Riverford do allow customers to return it to them for composting.
Reuse not single use!
Whilst the Blue Planet focused public attention on plastic pollution – in reality it is single use in its entirety that needs to be eradicated to the extent possible. Whether a single use item is made from plastic, cardboard, bamboo or biodegradable plastic – it’s still by its “single use” nature, rubbish. It still involves the linear use for a short period of time of precious raw materials and then disposal.
If those materials are:-
- wood based – it involves deforestation (although some waste wood may be available there are loads of potential uses for waste wood and if we replace single use plastic with single use paper/cardboard etc we’ll soon be chopping down trees to fill demand). Even if made from recycled paper and cardboard – again that recycled paper/cardboard is better used where it’s the best option – think loo roll, paper and cardboard!
- plant based – it involves use of precious land which could otherwise be used to produce food or restore nature
- seaweed/algae based – again this involves loads of infrastructure, human disruption of the marine environment with potential harm to marine life, and a better use for seaweed/algae is as food
- recyclable: –
- It involves energy to break down and recycle the materials and then more energy to recreate the original itemMost plastics can only be recycled a very limited number of times, and mostly into lower grade plastic for uses such as construction materialsRecycling plastic into clothes can just make things worse – turning “recyclable” bottles into “unrecyclable” clothing that sheds microplastics when washed. See
- Reports have found that drinks bottles made from recycled plastic leach more chemicals into the drink than bottles made from virgin plastic.
In a complex environmental emergency we simply can’t afford to continue this rubbish system and we need to move everything possible to reuse.
Leaving space for nature
We need move away from a society that thinks that anything is disposable, because it is not.
Imagine a child, that at nursery decided that all of the toys and comfy cushions to lie on and snacks were just for them – not for the other kids – and they could use them, destroy them or just throw them away as they chose. If the other kids went hungry and had no cushions to rest on, tough luck.
Well that’s how us humans have treated all the other living creatures in the world. We have treated all land and resources as just for our one species to do with, damage and abuse as we please. That has to end.
We live on a planet with finite resources and finite land. We need to use the land that we have available for very specific purposes – to home people, to feed people and to leave space for nature. We can’t just look at everything from the spectrum of only our species.
We share the world with many other wonderful species, and right now we are pushing them out. We are pushing them to the margins, and that has caused biodiversity to collapse.
And this is very relevant to what we do to replace plastic cups, takeaway containers etc.. If all we do is replace single use plastic cups with bioplastics or paper or to anything else that is plant-based – apart from anything else we are creating further demand on land for us humans in place of for other species.
We are already leaving far too little land available for nature. We can’t afford to increase our use of land for something as frivolous as a takeaway container or cup.
Our population is growing – we have to prioritise our human use of land for food, for homes and for nature.
We have allowed our world to get to a place where we have massively depleted all life on earth apart from humans, the animals we eat and the animals we choose to keep as pets for our own pleasure – and, even worse, the animals we feed to our pets.
Since 1970 wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% on average globally (WWF’s Living Planet Report 2022).
Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, and 1 in 8 species are now threatened with extinction: State of the World’s Birds Report 2022, by BirdLife International.
Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history: The IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
We need to be using land much more sparingly, and that includes NOT using land to grow crops to create disposables.
System change not consumer change
We are totally fed up with hearing that we need to change consumer behaviour.
Who tells us that we need to change consumer behaviour? Corporates.
Who creates consumer behaviour? Corporates.
We need an end to corporates buying too much stock and then encouraging us to buy things we don’t need via sales and Black Friday.
We need an end to corporates promoting more and more “seasons”, constantly trying to persuade us that things in our home are no longer in vogue, that our clothes and furnishings are out-of-fashion.
It’s corporate behaviour that has created the single use over-consumption system and we need to change that system – so it’s the corporates that need to change.
And it’s the Government that is most able to change corporate behaviour. Small early stage businesses like those in the Reuse Collective can work as hard as they can – but without some carrot and stick from laws, regulations and tax levies, they are running up a downwards escalator.
Reuse system change not tokenism
In-store refill works well in small independent refill shops, where the shops have a direct community relationship with their customers and those customers are highly-motivated and are willing to go the extra mile to avoid plastic. Nothing that we say next detracts from the vital role that independent refill shops play in educating the public and providing a great local shopping experience for those who are committed to reducing their environmental impact.
But – in-store refill is never going to make a significant inroad into the mass of plastic grocery packaging emitting from supermarkets.
In-store refill in supermarkets is unlikely to ever work at significant scale.
In-store supermarket refill does not work for most consumers. It doesn’t work for the busy mum at the supermarket with a couple of kids. It doesn’t work for the pensioner or others with mobility issues who already find shopping a struggle. It absolutely does not work in a world where we need to reduce reliance on cars.
Convenience for consumers not convenience for corporates
So far reusable solutions have focused on radically changing consumer behaviour and imposing on consumers a level of inconvenience and effort corporations have for decades led consumers to not expect.
For reuse to work we need to make it as convenient for the consumer as single use and that means that the effort needs to be put in by the corporations who created the expectation of convenience. To genuinely reduce single use waste we need a system that consumers will and can adopt and which works with existing retail structures.
Consumers are used to purchasing pre-packaged items and then rinsing and depositing packaging into their recycling bins at home. Refilled reusables with doorstep collection of used reusables requires no change in consumer behaviour – other that in some instances separating reusables in separate glass, dry (cardboard and packaging) and wet/un-fragile – plastic reusables (note – some local authorities already require separation of some recyclables).
This also requires no change in retailer habits. Retailers buy in refilled reusables and stock and sell as normal. The change is in the logistic process which can be set up in convenient locations in place of recycling or dump in landfill.
Government support for a reuse system
We are calling on the government, local authorities, grant funders and corporates to start directing funds, effort and legislation into supporting a true reuse system. And that requires a change in the system and corporate behaviour, not a change in consumer behaviour.
We need Government action of the level that it finally took to tackle smoking in the UK. When the government banned smoking in restaurants and pubs that was the start of the decline of smoking as being socially acceptable, and the stats regarding the public health impact of banning smoking in public places speak for themselves.
Smoking bans improve cardiovascular health and reduce smoking-related deaths (nihr.ac.uk)
Everyone soon reached the point where the thought of anyone smoking next to them in a restaurant was abhorrent. Everyone soon enjoyed being able to go out for the evening without coming home with their hair and clothes smelling of tobacco. For young people, they can’t even imagine what it was like when people smoked on the bus or even in hospitals and classrooms.
We need this kind of step-change to address single-use plastic. We need the Government to stop tinkering with measures that create tiny insignificant changes and tackle single use waste in the way they finally tackled smoking, helping to make our public spaces litter free as well as smoke free. That requires putting in place systems which significantly disincentivise single-use and makes reuse a convenient and viable option for both businesses and consumers.
A reuse system
For reuse to work and truly replace single use we need:-
- Containers that can efficiently be collected, washed, re-distributed and refilled
- Curbside collection of reusables – eventually by refuse collection services – as for recycling and food waste
- Washing facilities
- Redistribution to refill facilities
At scale the energy, water and detergent usage of each of these stages reduces – making the environmental savings compared to single use greater the more reuse that happens.
Other key issues are:-
- Changing the perception of single use packaging as somehow magically more hygienic and sterile than washed and reused items. Many factories are far from hygienic as are many warehouses and distribution facilities involved in getting single use packaging/containers from manufacture to consumer (in some cases from one side of the World to the other).
- Equally, standards and processes can be developed to ensure the safety of reusable packaging and containers. We have rigorous food safety regulation in the UK and it can be relatively inexpensive to ensure and monitor the same level of cleanliness for reuse – just as we trust plates and glasses to be clean (and they mostly are) in reputable restaurants, cafes and pubs.
- Standardisation of containers in a form that’s easy to wash, stack, re-distribute and re-use. Brand identity can still be achieved through labelling and online marketing.
- Agreed colours/shapes can be set for categories e.g. toiletries/cleaning, food, food containing allergens etc
- Labels – need to be easily removable.
- Integrity of reusable items can be maintained to a high degree by some segregation:-
- Bottles and jars could be collected in a crate, milk/beer bottle style
- Dry reusables could be separated out – so flat packed down cardboard boxes and bubble wrap/parcel packaging – which if collected in this manner could be used over and again
Aside from the obvious benefit of creating less rubbish, a comprehensive reusables in place of single use model as above:-
- Creates jobs
- Keeps money within the UK economy – circulating the reusables (and money) within the UK instead of buying in new raw materials from overseas
- Reduces fossil fuel reliance – particularly with glass where recycling is very energy intensive
Meet the team
Don’t take our word for it that reuse is the way forward
Watch an excellent video from The Story of Stuff project on plastic here. The Animated Short pulls back the curtain on the plastic pollution headlines, revealing the true causes and consequences of the global plastics crisis.
In the times of COVID 19, the England NHS alone has disposed of 1.4 billion masks since the start of the coronavirus pandemic (to March 2021). It is not possible to recycle disposable masks in a carbon friendly and environmentally sustainable way. Masks usually end up in landfill, incinerators (thereby producing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases) or as litter, increasing general pollution. Revolution-ZERO is the first zero waste, zero carbon targeted PPE solution. Simply put, they are all about planet saving PPE.
- Plastic never dies: the museum of vintage waste – in pictures – The Guardian
- Supermarkets and FMCGs are not taking responsibility to reduce plastic – Dutch Association of Investors for Sustainable Development
- FT Article by Jessica Rawnsley 3.11.22: “Plastic recycling: green necessity or waste of effort?” As interest grows in new technologies for reducing waste, critics warn about greenwashing”: Plastic recycling: green necessity or waste of effort? | Financial Times (ft.com)
- “Most home compostable plastics don’t work, says study” – research based on a study by UCL’s Plastic waste Innovation Hub: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/03/greenwash-home-compostable-plastics-dont-work-aoe?CMP=fb_gu&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#Echobox=1667465731
- Bioplastics – City to Sea – A plastic revolution or a load of rubbish?
- 8.10.22 Guardian article in Environment Section: ‘Stop setting things on fire’: nine great ideas to save the planet | Environment | The Guardian Includes: ‘Shift to reusables’ by Nina Schrank, senior campaigner, Greenpeace UK: In our throwaway society, it feels as if we’re facing an avalanche of disposable plastic. One simple idea holds the key to turning this around: reuse. The practice was embedded for generations in so many cultures across the globe, yet the corporate world has made us forget those traditions and the value we place in objects that have taken natural resources and energy to produce. We need to shift to reusable packaging that stays in circulation – used, washed, reused and, crucially, out of the environment. The status quo simply isn’t working: we need to embrace the innovations that will allow reuse to flourish in the modern world.
- Upstream Solutions: “The New Reuse Economy – the future of food service is reusable”: New+Reuse+Economy_Food+Service.pdf (squarespace.com)
- “How a monument to my great-great-grandfather could help tackle the scourge of plastic pollution” – March 2023: How a monument to my great-great-grandfather could help tackle the scourge of plastic pollution | Polly Toynbee | The Guardian
Reports that back us up
October 2022 A new report by Unpackaged, commissioned by the @RethinkPlastic in Europe. “A Just Transition to Reusable Packaging: Necessary conditions, benefits and best practice” looks beyond the environmental benefits of reuse and explores the potential socio-economic benefits, with a focus on the grocery retail and HoReCa (Hotel, Restaurant, Cafés) sectors: A-Just-Transition-to-Reusable-Packaging.pdf (rethinkplasticalliance.eu)
Greenpeace Unpacked Report – How Supermarkets can cut plastic packaging in half by 2025: Greenpeace_Unpacked_Report.pdf
Feb 2020 Report by Ellie Moss and Rich Grousset for The Overbrook Foundation: “The Dirty Truth About Disposable Foodware – The Mismatched Costs and Benefits of U.S. Foodservice Disposables and What to Do About Them” The+Dirty+Truth+About+Disposable+Foodware_vF.pdf (squarespace.com)
Breaking the Plastic Wave – a comprehensive assessment of pathways towards stopping ocean plastic pollution. Developed by The Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution” presents a first-of-its-kind model of the global plastics system. It is an evidence-based roadmap that describes how to radically reduce ocean plastic pollution by 2040 and that shows there is a comprehensive, integrated, and economically attractive pathway to greatly reduce plastic waste entering our ocean. The research supporting this report was co-developed with 17 experts from across the spectrum of professionals looking at the plastic pollution problem, with broad geographical representation. The findings of our analysis were published in the peer-reviewed journal, Science: breakingtheplasticwave_report.pdf (pewtrusts.org)
Abel & Cole – October 2022 – “Why We’re Moving Away From Compostables”: https://www.abelandcole.co.uk/blog/post/why-we-re-moving-away-from-compostable-plastics
Just Food Magazine – October 2022 – “Reusable packaging – a revolution stuck in a rut”: https://just-food.nridigital.com/just_food_oct22/food_industry_reusable_packaging
Plastic ingestion by humans and animals altering cells, scientists say – March 2023 – Plastic ingestion by humans and animals altering cells, scientists say | Financial Times (ft.com)
New disease caused by plastics discovered in seabirds – March 2023 – New disease caused by plastics discovered in seabirds | Plastics | The Guardian