Our Problem with Plastic: Part 1

Reading Time: 4:00 minutes

This piece is a two-part piece on the issue of Plastics that is a crucial conversation and we were keen to talk about it here at RangeRoom.

At the beginning of this year, the UK government outlined their policy to tackle plastic packaging, with over 8 Million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans each year the call to action for businesses and consumers alike was clear. With the convenience of supermarket shopping and online deliveries to our door, we have created a deluge of waste material that’s filtering back into the environment and causing catastrophic damage.

During the World Economic Forum in Davos, both French and UK Governments made a commitment to work to create a circular economy for plastics.  To date only 11 leading brands, retail and packaging companies have committed to creating 100% reusable recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Out of this list, only one company produces and sells clothing: Marks and Spencer.

But with a focus from the government pointed at single-use plastics primarily in packaging, what does this mean for the Fashion Industry and what alternatives are there?  

Part 1: Problem Packaging 

ASOS’ Corporate Responsibility statement noted they use 40 million plastic mailing bags and 5 million cardboard mailing boxes per year. Although the boxes are made from 100% recycled cardboard, those 40 million plastic postage bags are currently made with only 25% recycled content. These could easily be replaced with branded heavy paper packets, sharply reducing the amount of plastic used.


However, what’s not covered on their website are the single-use garment or poly bags anyone receiving an ASOS delivery is familiar with.  Replacing poly bags is one of the biggest plastic challenges in the Fashion Industry.

Poly bags are used by almost every clothing manufacturer to ship their garment from factory to warehouse, to retailer and, in the case of online, finally to the consumer. Poly bags ensure the garment stays clean and untarnished throughout the process. Complex automated warehouse packing systems would easily damage any unpackaged garments.  Machines can easily pick up one item in thousands, dictated by the code on the outer layer of the polybag encasing it, an effective method in mass-market business dealing with tens of thousands of units at any one time. But these bags are inevitably discarded with the rubbish, many of which are not made from a material suitable for recycling either.

So with single-use plastic a target on the UK government’s hit list, this should be the first action point for the fashion industry to change.

Make Strides: Recycle and Reuse:

Poly bags from recycled plastic are readily available and already adopted by forward-thinking retailers such as Arket who uses 90% recycled plastic in their poly bags. The high content of recycled plastic in these bags works towards reducing the use of crude oil used in manufacturing new plastics. This is a great start toward the EU target of making ALL plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030.


How to be better?

The fine plastic used for poly bags can be hard to recycle in our conventional rubbish, and not all recycling plants can process it. To prevent this problem for consumers who are unable to recycle, the innovative activewear brand Patagonia has offered a return service for its online customers and also wholesale partners.  Its customers can easily return their poly bags to the Patagonia DC, who then bale and send their packaging off to a suitable recycling plant. By offering a solution to the problem, Patagonia has gone beyond the customers’ expectation of service but is also re-assured of their brands’ environmental commitment. This simple offer adds to the brands’ integrity and helps to maintain a loyal and returning customer base.


Future Plans: Biodegradable and Bio-plastic Packaging:

Biodegradable cellulose bags are commonly used as diaper and doggy bags, food containers and even for stationary items such as gift cards. However, these may not be the solution our increasing waste management issues, as biodegradable bags will only degrade in the correct conditions.

The UN’s chief scientist, Jacqueline McGlade, described biodegradable plastics as “well-intentioned but wrong, many that end up in landfill or the worlds oceans do not have the right conditions to break down.” So what could be the solution to the problem of polybags?

During last week’s Davos events, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation awarded 5 prizes to innovators and entrepreneurs in the circular materials challenge. These focused on innovations that offer recyclable and compostable packaging solutions, therefore working to stop plastic waste and solve the plastic packaging problem.

One of the most exciting recipients was a team of three US businesses working together to create Full Cycle Bio Plastics.  By creating highly durable packaging from a blend of plant and wood waste, the packaging can be fully recycled when fed to enzymes and bacteria and turned into new bioplastics. Their product is a cost-competitive, multi-layered film made from organic waste and cellulose materials that can be used to protect everything from food to laundry detergent, and almost certainly could be an alternative to the fashion industry’s polybag problem. The winners now enter an accelerator program to take their innovation to market.

It may be a little while before these innovative products are available on the commercial market as a viable alternative to a recycled polybag, but great strides are being made to solve this problem. Once the solution is there businesses must follow suit and seek to implement these new technologies in their supply chains.

So how does your experience with packaging compare and are you keen be part of this change? Please share this with friends or colleagues that you think would be interested in this article.


Image credits: title image: “What lies under” by Ferdi Rizkiyanto & Plastic Bags image from Explast 


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