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Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet and plastic alternative pioneer, believes that one day, plastic packaging on food and drink products will not only be discouraged, but it will be illegal. “Plastic has been incredible at offering the qualities that we need for that job, but no more,” she says.
Single-use plastic has become a hot topic in the fine food industry, and Sian works to take that key issue head on through her work. “A Plastic Planet exists for one purpose only: to ignite and inspire the world to turn off the plastic tap. We work across industries to help them change faster.”
Recently, plastics have had something of a resurgence due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the belief plastic-wrapped goods are safer than zero-waste alternatives. “At the beginning of the pandemic there was a fear-driven, knee-jerk reaction and we went back to using this dinosaur indestructible material that we’d been using for 50 years – plastic.”
However, Sian says that the pandemic has also led many consumers to forge a deeper relationship with the natural world. “I feel hopeful now that something else has happened during the pandemic – we want to be connected with nature in a way that we’ve missed. We’re appreciating every minute that we’re spending outdoors.”
Now, she sees change on the horizon, and urges the food and drink industry to play a part in reducing the “massive plastic iceberg” – in the UK, it’s estimated that five million tonnes of plastic is used every year, nearly half of which comes from packaging.
“That pendulum that had swung so far the wrong way – largely down to the lobbyists of the fossil fuel industries in the US and the UK – is starting to swing the other way,” Sian says. “It’s up to all of us to get behind the pendulum to make sure that it swings even further and faster. We have to have learned something from this – you can’t have healthy people on an unhealthy planet.”
Steps towards a plastic-free future
There are already “lots of exciting innovations” going on within the sector, Sian says. For example, zero-waste company Loop recently launched with Tesco, which means consumers can have products from certain brands delivered straight to their doors in reusable packaging. “While you can’t currently do a full Loop shop because they don’t have all the brands, I hope that other brands get involved,” Sian says.
Permanent packaging with refill options is the ideal way forward for the industry. “It’s making the refill concept accessible to people who don’t want to shop in that way, and elevates the whole experience,” Sian says. “It’s not the shopper’s responsibility anymore.”
The industry must also work to reconnect consumers with food producers. “Across Europe you have the wonderful, sensory, gustative experience of markets and being there with the food; in the UK you go into the supermarket and you have aisle upon aisle of sweaty food in plastic tombs. We need to get that experience back,” Sian says.
To continue driving this change, consumers and industry players will have to come together and work to step out of ingrained habits. By making permanent and sustainable packaging more accessible and widely available, Sian believes we can stop packaging from ever hitting the bin.