Last week, Australia’s big two grocery retailers Coles and Woolworths jointly announced they will phase out products with plastic microbeads. Plastic is a massive social and environmental issue threatening terrestrial and marine ecosystems and species, human health, air pollution and climate change. Since last year, development agencies and not for profit organisations have turned their attention to this issue. The pest that is plastic has manifested in different forms – microbeads in personal care products, shopping bags for the retail industry, and straws for the beverage and hospitality. This article looks at a few solutions by business to try exterminate society’s plastic pests.

Plastic microbeads 

"Microbeads-on-hand" by MPCA Photos on Flickr
“Microbeads-on-hand” by MPCA Photos on Flickr

The news last week from Coles and Woolworths follows a US movement to phase out microbead products. Plastic microbeads enters the waterways and oceans, where they are eaten by marine life. This can then be consumed by humans if eating fish! Worse still, harmful microbes, pathogens and algal species have been found to thrive on plastic microbeads, another source of risk and damsge for the environment. Until the ban, the only way to identify if your product contains these nasties is to look for “polyethylene (PE)” on the packaging. So in the US, companies such as Beiersdorf​, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and The Body Shop have begun the phase-out ahead of legislation passed in the US banning the use of microbead personal care products. Australia’s approach has been non-legislative, instead opting for a voluntary phase-out of the beads by July 1, 2018.

Plastic bags 

"Plastic Bag / Ramin Bahrani" by Ars Electronica on Flickr
“Plastic Bag / Ramin Bahrani” by Ars Electronica on Flickr

Another supermarket, Asda, based in the UK, is managing the well-known nuisance that is plastic bags. The retailing giant commenced its five pence levy early, ahead of the government legislation in October. Environmentally, this meant the drop in plastic started sooner, as the new cost discourages use. For business, understanding the reaction of the customer to learn tactics to mitigate dissatisfaction (achievable from a phased rollout across locations) would have been extremely insightful. But Asda’s move had further benefits: by starting a grants program where local charities could apply for the funding, it could demonstrate a strong commitment to its local community. Community being perhaps the #1 focus for supermarket retail from the perspective of maximising shared value.

Plastic straws 

Untitled by Daniel Oines on Flickr
Untitled by Daniel Oines on Flickr

From big retail to small producer, Straw Straws is aiming to be the solution to the 500 million plastic straws used each day for 5 minutes and then discarded forever. I hate straws because there is absolutely no second use for them like plastic bags could have, and there is essentially no awareness or interest in them. TreeHugger reported in June that the company had a Kickstarter campaign going to raise money for the product. It achieved this goal and is very close to delivering its first batch of product. Straw Straws are:

“Hand-harvested and hand-cut from pesticide-free winter rye grown in Germany, and are sterilized and “approved by the FDA as a food contact substance.””

And I hope they are able to go mainstream. In fact, I hope the microbeads ban and plastic bag levy goes global. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), from two independent studies, found “conservative yearly estimates of $13 billion in financial damage to marine ecosystems”, while “the overall natural capital cost in the consumer goods sector each year is $75 billion”. These figures are costs to the economy, quantified from environmental and social, meaning its a problem that will strike everywhere. I hope companies pick this up quick.

Views expressed in this article on my personal blog are my own and do not represent anything of my employer’s. 

2 thoughts on “Beads, bags & straws: 3 plastic pests and their solutions

  1. Great article Darren. Plastic bags are a commonly understood menace, banning micro-beads is the sustainability ‘du-jour’ at the moment but straws are an insidious thing that must be confronted as an environmental issue.

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