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Alternatives to plastics

We take a closer look at a range of increasingly innovative ways to combat plastic pollution…

Plastic has become a dirty word. We associate it with environmental pollution, cheap, mass-produced products, bad cosmetic surgery and consumer excess. But, when modern plastic was invented by Leo Baekeland in the early 20th century, it was revolutionary. Unlike the glass and metals that it largely came to replace, plastic had the advantage of being durable and cheap — it wouldn’t dent, smash or shatter. It was indestructible.

Baekeland’s invention, Bakelite, was the first synthetic plastic — it was made from fossil fuels instead of plant- or animal-based materials like animal horn, cellulose and rubber, which had already been in use for centuries. Just like these natural materials, synthetic plastics are composed of chains of large molecules called polymers, which can be moulded into any shape. Other synthetic plastics soon followed, including groundbreaking fabrics like polyester and nylon, as well as polystyrene, polythene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which are commonly used in packaging.

Fast forward to 2017 and there are now hundreds of thousands of different types of polymers, most of them made from oil or gas. Their once-prized durability is now their downfall: they will languish in landfill for thousands of years before they degrade — and many have found their way into our oceans.

Consequently, some manufacturers, including Lush, are working hard to find better alternatives to synthetic plastics, whether that’s by developing and utilising polymers that are designed to decompose, or reusing and recycling materials in ingenious ways.

At Lush, we keep all packaging to a minimum and, where possible, we sell our products naked. When we do use plastic packaging, we make sure that it can be reused and recycled. Our black pots are made from 100% post-consumer polypropylene, some of which we purchase and some of which we recycle at our Greenhub from the pots that our customers return to us.

“In the past 12 months we have received back a massive seven tons of black plastic pots to be recycled.” Suzy Hill, Lush’s Earth Care team.

All our bottles are made from a type of plastic called PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is made from 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic, and we also reuse and recycle the PET moulds that we use to make our bath bombs.

“We’ve led innovation in materials that are not just recyclable but already recycled,” explains Lush Packaging Engineer, Giles Verdon. “We make our bath bomb moulds from a PET sheet, and we’re currently working out how to wash and shred these and turn them back into sheets to to make new moulds that we can use again and again. We’re not sitting still, we’re always challenging ourselves.”

Innovations in plastic

Just as early plastics were made from natural materials, some innovators are now developing new materials from natural sources. Pioneering textile company Ananas Anam Ltd. manufactures and sells a sustainable natural textile called Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf fibres that are a natural byproduct of the Philippines’ pineapple harvest, and would otherwise go to waste. The material was developed over a seven-year period by Dr Carmen Hijosa, the CEO of  Ananas Anam Ltd. No extra land, water, fertilisers or pesticides are required to produce it, and it also brings extra income to pineapple farmers in the Philippines. As well as being vegan and biodegradable, Piñatex represents an environmentally sound alternative to leather substitutes, which are often made from petroleum-based plastics like PVC and polyurethane.

“The purpose of Piñatex is to fill a niche in the market, that is becoming more and more obvious,  between leather and the petroleum-based textiles,” says Dr Carmen Hijosa. Both adidas and Camper have made prototype shoes from Piñatex, and ethical footwear brand Po-Zu have used it to make a range of vegan shoes. “Piñatex has evolved and it has become a material in itself,” says Dr Hijosa.

Another business that’s using organic materials to help reduce plastic pollution is a small, Florida-based, craft beer brand called Saltwater Brewery. Working in collaboration with New York-based advertising agency We Believers, the company have created 100% biodegradable, compostable, edible, and plastic-free six-pack rings that are made out of wheat and barley ribbons, which are byproducts of the brewing process. If they do find their way into the ocean, the edible six pack rings begin to break down within hours, unlike conventional plastic six-pack rings which can endanger wildlife, causing suffocation, strangulation or starvation if animals become entangled and trapped, even though they are made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which is designed to break down in sunlight within 90 days. If big beer companies adopt this new technology, the manufacturing cost would drop, which would make it a competitive alternative to plastic. Peter Agardy, Head of Brand at Saltwater Brewery, says, “It’s a big investment for a small brewery created by fishermen, surfers and people that love the sea.” Brewery president Chris Gove says, “We hope to influence the big guys and hopefully inspire them to get on board.”

Some global brands are focusing on the development of bioplastics, which uses yeast to convert sugar cane into ethylene, polythene and PET. However this isn’t an avenue which Lush is keen to pursue. “We don’t like the idea of taking a food crop that could feed people and turning it into plastic,” explains Giles Verdon. Instead, we prefer to reduce, reuse and recycle — an ethos which is also at the heart of several inspiring global initiatives to reduce plastic pollution.

  • Thread International turns plastic bottles collected from the streets and canals of Haiti into a responsible fabric. The fabric, which is made with 50% recycled PET, has been used by Global fashion brands including Timberlake, Kenneth Cole, and Australian homewares brand Kelly Lane.
  • Adidas have collaborated with Parley for the Oceans to transform ocean plastic into performance sportswear. Footwear designs feature a knitted upper made from yarn created from ocean plastic fibres, and a 3D-printed midsole made using recycled polyamide and illegal deep-sea gillnets.

  • ReFleece accessories are crafted from a new kind of felt that’s made from reclaimed textiles and recycled plastic bottles using a low-energy manufacturing process.

  • Pilot’s Bottle-2-Pen Gel Roller ink pens are the first pens in the world to be made from plastic bottles — and they’re 100% refillable.

  • Blue Planet Eyewear produces eco-friendly sunglasses which are made from recycled plastics and metals.

Everyday alternatives

While businesses work hard to develop alternatives to plastics, there’s lots that we as individuals can do on a day-to-day level to reduce and recycle plastics. We encourage our customers to use fabric knot wraps instead of paper to wrap Lush gifts. These are more beautiful than conventional gift wrap, and can be used over and over again. We make some of our knot wraps from Greenspun fabric, which is made from 100% recycled PET bottles, and others are made from vintage scarves.

Choosing reusable coffee cups and water bottles is another important step. Data from the Recycle Now campaign reveals that, each year, the average UK household uses 480 plastic bottles, but only recycles 270 of them. Additional research from Cardiff University suggests that up to seven million coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every day, with less than 1% of these being recycled — largely because the plastic film lining the paper cups makes them difficult to recycle. Many coffee shops now welcome the use of refillable cups — and it’s possible to buy eco-friendly versions. Aladdin Earthscapes manufactures mugs, bottles and food containers that are made from a recycled plastic blend called eCycle®, which means that the bottle or tumbler can be recycled when you’re ready to replace it.

Using paper and metal drinking straws instead of plastic, or avoiding them altogether, can also make a difference. According to US recycling company Eco Cycle, 500 million plastic straws are used in the US every day. Once discarded, these end up in landfill or find their way into the ocean, where small pieces can become lodged in the noses of sea turtles or perforate the stomachs of penguins. Some UK pubs and restaurants have signed up to the Straw Wars campaign, whereby they commit to getting rid of straws or providing them only when requested.

Campaigns to reduce our use of plastic clearly work; since October 2015, when all large shops in England were required to charge 5p for single use plastic carrier bags, the number of bags used has reduced by more than 80%. In 2016, California became the first US state to ban plastic bags completely, joining a number of nations including Kenya, China, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Macedonia, and France — where plastic plates, cups and utensils will also be banned from 2020.

So join us, and try living life with less plastic — the benefits are fantastic!

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