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  • Morag Nixon

Innovation can come in many forms, from reusable tampon applicators to cardboard surfboard packaging

I recently attended a great online conference related to all thing's plastics! It was called the “Global Research & Innovation in Plastics Sustainability” (GRIPS), stretched over three days it gave a great overview of the whole industry. There were sessions on the plastic situation currently in various sectors, new innovations and both current and future recycling technologies. It was great to listen to many topics I have read about being discussed by experts in that field. It was particularly interesting seeing the varied uses of plastics and how many industries are relevant, for example textiles, fashion, construction, healthcare, automotive and agriculture just to name a few.


Plastic is a highly valuable material, and it would not be practical to eliminate its use. The research at Nottingham aims to improve the recycling technologies available but this is not enough. To improve plastics circularity the demand for plastic needs to be reduced. Currently the linear economy is overwhelmed by plastic waste, to help transition to a circular economy the pressure on plastic needs to be relieved. This can be visualised by the dinner plate analogy. Imagine the current plastic production is the size of a dinner plate and the future circular economy is the size of a side plate. Initially the circular economy will be limited by how much plastic waste it can manage before inevitably it starts to spill out into the environment or end up in landfill. However, we can make changes now to ease the transition to a circular economy. This would also allow minimal plastic waste spill out while the circular economy grows to be able to process all plastic waste.



Areas where plastic has been overused can be targeted for innovation, aiming to reduce the reliance on plastic. I attended a session at the GRIPS conference titled “Innovations to improve polymer circularity”. During this session, several innovators presented their products that are alternatives to plastic.


The co-founder of DAME spoke about the work they have done to offer the first reusable tampon applicator and now manufacture a range of sustainable plastic alternative period products. This industry contributes hugely to the plastic problem, an average user generates 150 kg of tampons, pads and applicators in their lifetime, around 90% of this is plastic [2].This is a staggering amount, and many girls and women want to use alternatives, but period products are a very personal choice, so you have to find what works for you. However, this has become easier with more variety now on the market like the DAME reusable tampons but also menstrual cups, period pants and reusable pads are hugely popular. Hopefully, this will allow everyone to find a plastic free alternative that works for them.


Another co-founder, but this time for a paper-based packaging company, spoke about how him and his brother designed the Flexi-Hex sleeve. This innovation was initially designed to tackle plastic packaging for surfboards. However, this product is very versatile and has been adapted to be used in place of other plastic packaging, such as for bottles, cosmetics, electronics and homeware, with plans for expansion. Through a clever hexagonal design, they are able to make paper stronger than plastic, use minimal material and produce a sustainable packaging alternative.


These of just two examples of where there is plenty of room to innovate in order produce sustainable plastic-free products. There are many more products on the market to help you live a plastic free lifestyle or a business reduce their reliance on plastic. Some small changes I have made in my personal life are using sustainable period products, buying concentrated cleaning products in dissolvable tablets and I made some material drawstring bags in one of the many lockdowns to help me buy loose vegetables. I hope to be able to swap to having glass milk bottles delivered in the future. There is no silver bullet to the plastic waste problem unfortunately so we must all work together in whatever way we can to help make plastic more circular.


Morag


References:

1. S. Bahl, J. Dolma, J. Jyot Singh and S. Sehgal, Mater. Today Proc., 2020, in press.

2. Tesco Launches Organic, Reusable Feminine Hygiene Products

https://www.esmmagazine.com/private-label/tesco-launches-organic-and-reusable-feminine-hygiene-products-66603 (accessed March 2021)

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