The war on single-use plastic is spreading to logistics, as consumers and retailers seek to minimise the environmental impact of their supply chains.
In recent years, the devastating effect plastic bags, straws and packaging have on the environment have become mainstream. Images of unrecycled plastic mounting up at landfills and, in particular, widespread shock over the havoc wreaked by plastic on the world’s oceans and marine ecosystems have been widely shared via traditional and social media.
According to the World Bank, 8 million tonnes of plastics are dumped in the ocean each year, causing annual damages estimated at US$13 billion. Moreover, a research paper published in the journal Science Advances recently uncovered that only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled.
Most of the world’s plastic makes its way into the ocean due to dumping in East Asia, particularly in China.
In a widespread environmental crackdown last year, China banned the import of plastic waste in a bid to reduce its pollution. The move highlighted the vast volumes of plastic waste shipped to Asia from Western countries, and quickly shifted the emphasis from recycling to the use of sustainable alternatives.
Retailers and supermarkets have led the way in introducing sustainable packaging to their supply chains. In the UK, for example, most of the major supermarkets – which produce 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic every year, according to Greenpeace – plan to either reduce or eliminate plastic bags and wrapping on fruits and vegetables over the next five years.
In Asia, supermarkets in Thailand and Vietnam have begun wrapping fresh produce in banana leaves, continuing the long history of using the fruit’s large leaves to carry street food such as sticky rice. Banana leaves are largely regarded as a sustainable alternative in Southeast Asia and other tropical regions due to their ubiquitous nature in these climates.
Creating sustainable supply chains is not as simple as cutting the use of all plastics, however. According to packaging firm Sonoco Products, eliminating all plastic packaging would lead to deforestation. Instead, the focus should be on using recyclable plastics.
“We don’t see a world without plastic. We focus on a world without packaging waste in our lands and oceans,” Laura Rowell, Sonoco Products’ global sustainability manager of consumer packaging told Supply Chain Dive, noting how certain plastics can be sustainable and help reduce food waste.
In the airfreight industry, cold chain specialists believe eliminating the widespread use of foam and polystyrene packaging could reduce costs, considering the material’s bulky nature takes up valuable aircraft capacity. Increasing freight capacity of each aircraft by using less bulky packaging could mean there would be fewer flights needed and lower emissions.
Alternatives include paper packaging, as well as the 100%-recyclable Expandable Polystyrene (EPS), according to US-based Styrotek, which uses EPS to transport and extend the shelf life of grapes.
Meanwhile, temperature-control packaging firm Softbox has launched a recycling service allowing pharmaceutical shippers to dispose of packaging waste, such as used pallets, EPS foam and corrugated components.
“Our customers can now significantly reduce their landfill impact and potentially reduce the cost they are paying today for non-sustainable waste,” said John Hammes, General Manager of Softbox, US and Canada.
Given the amount of plastic making its way into the oceans each year, initiatives are underway to reduce pollution from ocean freight, too.
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), for example, has launched a study to address marine plastic litter entering the oceans through ship-based activities. The study will consider whether to establish a compulsory mechanism to declare loss of containers at sea.