Programs to switch away from plastics - do they work?
Through Plastic Free Places, we’ve worked with hundreds of businesses to help them eliminate single-use plastics. It’s fair to say we have a pretty good idea of what it takes.
But when we first started our pilot project Plastic Free Noosa a few years ago, we didn’t know what we were getting into. Our plan was to implement a community program to reduce single-use plastics, and then write a guide on how we did it, so other communities could replicate the process. Simple enough? Except it wasn’t simple.
Why? Because the packaging industry is so complex and rife with greenwashing and misinformation that implementing ANY program to help businesses make the right choices is not easy. Combine that problem with the lack of time and resources small businesses have, and you have a real challenge - how to motivate businesses to want to make the change, and then help them make it successfully. Simply providing information to businesses is often not enough for them to make significant changes.
Addressing barriers to transition
For businesses who want to make the transition, there are barriers that affect success:
1. Small businesses owners have a lack of time - packaging is never urgent in their minds and they want to make the transition as easy and quick as possible.
2. Businesses often rely on their suppliers for advice. This is a problem because:
Suppliers generally have poor knowledge around the alternative products on the market and often do not invest in staff education to improve this because it's not a core focus.
Manufacturers have very clever ways to ensure their products end up on supplier shelves, and greenwashing is very convincing to almost everyone, including suppliers.
Suppliers may have their own interests - we have seen instances where they are pushing products they know are misleading so they can shift their product.
As a result, suppliers often give misinformation. Sadly, false or misleading information leaves many business owners cynical, deflated and disempowered.
3. The packaging industry is largely unregulated, and many operators cleverly design plastic products to look ‘eco’, and use misleading terminology to capitalise on the green market. Businesses often buy into this even with the best advice. Composting standards are confusing and there is little understanding of what these are, or what they mean.
4. Alternative packaging can be overwhelming and it can be hard for a business to identify alternatives that meet their exact needs. Often they don’t know where to start, they get the wrong products and give up, or they make some changes but simply become overwhelmed with the process.
Self-directed programs do not overcome these barriers, even with the best advice and resources. Each business is different so there is no one size fits all approach, general advice isn't enough to help a business find alternatives that suit their needs. On top of that, changes in the packaging industry happen so frequently that resources become out of date quickly and become dead ends for businesses if they are not kept up to date.
As a result of all this, over 80% of businesses who try, get it wrong
This isn’t an exaggeration. Many businesses join our program and tell us they are already plastic free. When we visit them, most (at least 80%, no matter which community we are working in) are still using plastic and don't realise. Some examples:
● One café was using a 'biodegradable' spoon made from polystyrene that their supplier claimed was made from plants. Product information wasn’t readily available.
● A good number of businesses have switched to oxo-biodegradable straws and are telling customers about their great new eco-friendly straws. Oxo-bio products are a plastic with an additive to break it apart faster. This is actually worse for the environment, but
marketed as 'eco friendly'.
● Many were given the wrong advice by their supplier who sent them plastic products, which they used, thinking they were doing the right thing.
● One business sourced a ‘natural product’, which not only contained hidden plastics, it was extremely expensive. When the business switched to a compostable alternative, they saved a significant amount of money.
In these situations, many businesses are surprised and shocked when we talk them through it, unhappy they have been paying more for cleverly marketed plastics.
Business barriers to participation
So far, we have only discussed businesses who are motivated to make the change. But there are many barriers that will prevent businesses from even getting to that point. These include:
● They have preconceived ideas that the cost and/or quality of alternatives (or the viability of reusables) won't suit their business, which stops them from even trying.
● They don’t see or understand the value in switching.
● They simply forget, never find the time, or put it in the too hard basket.
● They don’t see the point of compostables if the materials aren’t being composted.
● They think they have already done everything or know everything (BTW these businesses are often using greenwashed plastic).
● Staff may be supportive, but an owner or manager has to be engaged to make the switch, and their motivations may lie elsewhere. Turnover in staff and owners is common.
So… do self-managed programs work?
If the program is purely DIY (i.e. information and resources with no direct assistance or follow up), the answer is no. Believe me, if it did, we would be doing that!
In this situation, you will get some businesses accessing the information - these are the ones that are trying to switch anyway, and you will likely think the program is working because of them. Councils commonly display these on their websites as examples of businesses doing well under their DIY program. But these are the exceptions.
Ultimately, a self-managed approach looks good and proactive, but doesn't do much to effect change. Often councils don't have expertise in this area and underestimate the complexities involved with businesses and the supply chain, and don't understand the barriers that prevent many businesses from successfully transitioning and how to overcome them.
Lastly, the outcomes of DIY programs are difficult to quantify. Even if a council invests in surveys, businesses often think they are using plastic-free alternatives, but few of them are actually plastic-free.
How is Plastic Free Places different?
The reason our program is successful is because of our direct engagement. We go into a business, see the products they’re using, show them alternatives, find reusable or compostable solutions that work specifically for them, and identify where they can get them. And we can do it quickly and save businesses time. We help them reduce costs, and answer any questions.
We work with all the local suppliers, helping to educate them on products. We know what products all they stock, and which of those products are good, and which are simply greenwashing. We also work with manufacturers and keep on top of changes in the packaging industry.
In short, we can provide the café with exactly what they need to successfully transition.
Plus, we collect data and can quantify the changes, to show that our program works.
Firstly, we commend any council who wants to do work in this area. While simply putting up info on a website is largely ineffective, there are ways to go down a semi self-directed route and create change with the right resourcing and support. If you’re planning on this, you should be able to answer yes to the following questions.
1. Do you have someone with enough knowledge of packaging to create the resources, who can identify greenwashing (note: this is tricky), and match products that are compatible with your current or future waste and resource recovery streams? Compostable products do carry many environmental benefits regardless of whether or not they get composted, but ultimately, you will want to work towards collecting these for composting. Many composters will not accept foreign certifications and it’s better to get the alternative packaging right from the start, rather than businesses using products that will not actually be accepted for composting.
2. Are you able to investigate new products on the market for suitability and can you keep your resources up to date? Changes in the packaging industry happen so frequently that this needs to be updated regularly to remain current.
3. Can you encourage and motivate businesses to go plastic free?
4. Do you have someone who can continue to work with suppliers to facilitate getting the right information and products to businesses?
5. Can you answer questions from the businesses, who will look for your advice and support?
6. Do you have someone who understands packaging able to check on the businesses to see how they are going and pick up on any issues?
7. Can you track changes over time to show the program is working?
8. Can you assist with the introduction of reusables? There is so much more to this than encouraging your community to BYO (though that is good too). There are many great reusable systems but most businesses will not adopt them unless they have been approached directly and understand how they work.
9. Can you help businesses reduce packaging waste and costs?
While our program is very effective, we understand that some councils don’t want a full program, or want to manage a program themselves. If you’d like us to assist you to design a program that works for you, please contact us. We can help you set up your program for success. Or head to our services page to see how else we can help.