Single-use plastics: Is this the last straw?

As part of our Thought Leaders series, Mewburn Ellis Partner Paul Dunne explores how we can reshape single-use plastics to fit into a circular future.

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It’s clear that we’re falling out of love with single-use plastics. Where only a few years ago consumers viewed the ease of producing and binning such items as a huge positive, when viewed through the lens of the ‘circular economy’ today, these same attributes are perceived as a huge problem. And this change in perception is leading to changes in legislation.

In the UK, the government’s early steps in this direction began in 2015, with a small charge payable on single-use shopping bags. Just a few weeks ago, on 1 October 2020, the sale of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds was banned in England. Looking forward, the EU Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive 2019/904 – due to be implemented in 2024 – will bring in a suite of broader restrictions within the EU.

While these legislative efforts are admirable, they are necessarily limited in scope and slow in the making. That is not surprising; as is evident from the grumblings about soggy paper straws, the public and industry are only willing to support legislative changes if there are viable alternatives. And the provision of such alternatives is not at all simple. Conventional plastics are a wonder material, whose combination of low cost, low weight and high performance will prove difficult to match.

"To have a meaningful impact, changes in legislation must be coupled with changes in behaviour, design and technology"

In light of this, to have a meaningful impact, changes in legislation must be coupled with changes in behaviour, design and technology.

Changes in behaviour will be particularly important, since the best solution to the problem of single-use plastic is to drop the model altogether. However, there will always be situations in which a single-use solution is the only feasible option and in that respect advances in design and technology will play a crucial role.

Biodegradable and compostable materials are making some headway, but there is still much scope for innovation (see our blog Compostable packaging: let's break it down). Alongside that, innovators will need to refine recycling technology, in particular for plastic films and composite materials (see our blog Circular economy: rethinking composite plastic packaging).

We also need to deploy existing materials in smarter ways, designing products so that they are more amenable to recycling. In this vein, plastic bottles with tethered plastic caps should soon become commonplace (indeed, required by the EU SUP Directive) and will hopefully be coupled with less or smarter use of problematic labels, adhesives and pigments. At a lower-tech level, UK retailer Tesco has cut back on the packaging of its Cheddar cheese by reducing the surface-area-to-volume ratio, and we can expect similar initiatives in the packaging industry as a whole.

Single-use plastics will not go away. However, by pushing at the associated problems on multiple fronts, there is reason to hope that we can reshape them to fit into the circular future.

We explore the EPO report "Patents for tomorrow's plastics" in Intellectual Property Magazine.