The Plastic Bottle Challenge – Changing Habits

plastic_bottles_landfill

Plastic Bottles in landfill

Recent news reports have been trying to raise awareness of the long-term environmental effect of the use of plastic, and the impact on oceans, the countryside, and wildlife [1]

This reporting and many similar articles over the last few years is slowly changing public perception of the use of plastics in packaging. There has been some change in use as a consequence: laws forcing the reduction in the use of single-use plastic bags have come into effect and the impact of plastic bottles and micro-beads are now in the spotlight with some shoppers rejecting excess packaging growth for self-fill solutions.

Although legal prevention of use is a final step in forcing change, it is interesting to reflect on both the process of evaluation and necessary change in inside large businesses both when introducing new packaging approaches and what needs to happen to change to something else.

Organizations are continually searching for efficiency in their production and distribution processes; improving profitability or competitiveness is a clear driver, but there is also a good level of awareness of other factors, such as social pressures. When plastic packaging was introduced into the soft drinks arena, it was aiming to supplant the use of glass. Glass has many attractive qualities, but it is both heavy and relatively expensive compared to plastic packaging. The weight element should not be underestimated. A 750ml glass bottle weighs about 500g, an equivalent plastic bottle weighs 54g. The net result is that a typical truck can carry 60% of the number of glass wrapped soft drinks, compared to a lorry carrying plastic containers. So, more truck journeys are needed to deliver the same volume of beverage.

Besides the weight issue, there were a couple of other major areas to address: firstly, production line challenges of getting plastic to work on bottling lines. This sounds easy, but the different behavior of glass and plastic bottles on high-speed filling lines was a considerable challenge, overcome with patient re-engineering and testing over time. The other areas were, surprisingly, Marketing, who felt that the iconic messages provided by characteristic bottle shapes and weights ( e.g. Coca-Cola and Ribena glass bottles) were too powerful to cast aside.

This gives some hope in understanding the decision-making process that will be needed to get away from easily disposable plastic bottles. There will need to be a weight of negative marketing impact from being associated with such items to drive behavior. Even better, a positive associated with something different could be seen as a differentiator and a way of gaining market share.

Equally, any alternative will have to face the test of both commercial and operational challenge, to look at how those changes will impact profit and loss, and operational efficiency.

The elephant in the room is consumer behavior – what is it that drives us to throw away so many plastic items in so many different ways, and think that this is acceptable? The challenge of finding alternative uses, disposal routes which are responsible, even areas like education which considers these issues and social habits which makes littering acceptable all impact on the final resting place of these ubiquitous items.

A part of the challenge for businesses, purchasing and marketing is to think more deeply about the lifecycle of products and packaging, and to develop solutions which engage with more than the immediate satiation of a short-term desire, and look more at the holistic impact of consumption. This, surely, is not a short-term change but one which will take many years to work through. Starting today is our best option.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/18/uk-considers-tax-on-single-use-plastics-to-tackle-ocean-pollution

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/15/plastics-found-in-stomachs-of-deepest-sea-creatures and https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals as examples of plastic bottle issues

 

 

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