Reducing Single-Use Plastics in your Supply Chain.

Blog Post by Claire Kerr

Single-use plastic is high profile at the moment. Media campaigns and environmental protests have highlighted the serious risks that it poses and we’re becoming more enlightened about how it is damaging the environment and polluting our oceans.

As governments and international organisations begin to get to grips with the damage being caused, they are encouraging individuals and businesses to reduce levels of single-use plastic in all areas. This includes distribution businesses, which are significant users of single-use plastic in their supply chains.

What is single-use plastic.

Single-use plastic is disposable plastic that is only used once. It includes items like plastic bottles, cups, straws, and carrier bags that are used once and then thrown away or recycled.

The food industry is a major culprit. It’s responsible every year for billions of plastic straws, disposable plastic coffee cups, plastic drinks bottles and condiments sachets.

But the industry is trying to do better. Both McDonalds and Burger King have just announced new policies to get rid of or reduce plastic toys in their children’s meals. Plus, since the UK government introduced mandatory charges for plastic bags four years ago, their use has been drastically reduced. Also in the food industry, compostable lids and carrier bags have become common, and paper and bamboo straws are very familiar now in cafés and bars.

But the distribution industry still has a lot to do to reduce single-use plastic in the supply chain. It uses a great deal of plastic in packaging. Goods are sent to wholesalers or customers wrapped in bubble-wrap, plastic wrap, and padded envelopes. None of this plastic can be recycled, so it’s nearly always disposed of.

What’s the problem with single-use plastic?

Nearly all plastic is derived from fossil fuels, like coal and crude oil. Not only are the planet’s resources of these diminishing, but the final products made from petrochemicals do not decompose easily. They will break down eventually, but it may take many hundreds of years.

Climate change is being hastened by the use of single-use plastic. The sourcing of the raw materials, the production, refining and recycling of plastic all contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report by The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates that the greenhouse gases from the current levels of plastic production will threaten our ability to keep the world’s temperature rise under 1.5 degrees centigrade. It calls for an immediate end to the production of single-use plastic.

Single-use plastic is often difficult or impossible to recycle, meaning it is more likely to be thrown away. It can then easily find its way into the world’s rivers, and eventually the seas and oceans. We’ve all seen the stark images of beautiful tropical beaches littered with water bottles, flip flops and toothbrushes. Or the videos of animals entrapped in our plastic waste.

The plastic itself is not biodegradable, but it will break down after a long time. It breaks down into tiny particles. These are eaten by marine life, often building up and killing them. As the plastic breaks down, it also releases chemicals that pollute the world’s water sources. These toxic chemicals have been found in humans and some cause cancer and impaired immunity.

Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic are produced each year. The prolific global use of plastic is harmful to the environment and production levels are only increasing.

How can we reduce single-use plastic within a supply chain?

The CIEL report highlights packaging as a key contributor to the amount of single-use, disposable plastic being generated. Plastic packaging is very difficult to recycle and so is typically disposed of into landfill.

Within the supply chain, plastic is used to protect goods both during storage and delivery. Warehouses receive goods in plastic cartons that may simply be discarded after use. And distributors use bubble wrap, inflated plastic packaging or packing peanuts to pack out delivery cartons. Or they will pack small cartons and clothing in plastic bags for delivery.

One way we can limit single-use plastic is by using sustainable packaging. For example, UK company Loadhog provides returnable transit packaging solutions for its customers. It provides a range of crates, containers, pallets and wheeled dollies that customers can return after use. No longer thrown away as waste, these sustainable products become an asset.

If you ship small consignments to consumers, you’re possibly using plastic bags. These are not typically collected with standard kerbside recycling, but are recyclable at carrier bag collection points. However, as this places a greater onus on the customer who needs to make a greater effort to recycle, these items largely end up in landfill waste. Indeed, Amazon has been criticised recently for increasing its use of plastic bag packaging like this. Instead, consider using heavyweight paper or card packaging. For many shipments it is strong enough to keep the contents safe during distribution and delivery

Green bubble wrap, sugarcane alternatives to plastic and biodegradable packing peanuts are all suitable alternatives for packaging that are more eco-friendly than plastic packaging. If you don’t procure your own packaging, then put pressure on your suppliers. Request eco-friendly and sustainably sourced packaging.

What’s next for single-use plastic in the supply chain?

If you employ single-use plastic in your supply chain, it may not be the case for much longer.

The government’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England policy paper was released in December 2018. It sets out a “blueprint for eliminating avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25 Year Plan, doubling resource productivity, and eliminating avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050”. It includes a shift in responsibility that will make producers liable for the cost of disposal of the packaging that they produce.

Additionally, legislation due to come into effect in April 2022 will levy a ‘plastic tax’ on packaging that includes less than 30% recycled material. This will no doubt encourage distributors to consider their packaging practices sooner rather than later.

Aside from having to comply with government legislation, companies that choose to embrace green solutions will have a marketing advantage. Consumers make buying decisions based not just on product features and price, but also on how the product is manufactured and packaged. If your company’s green credentials differentiate you as a brand that is doing environmental good, then you will reap the competitive advantage.

If you’d like any guidance on your use of plastic in your warehousing and distribution processes, one of our supply chain consultants will be happy to advise you.  Call us on 020 8819 9071 or get in touch.