How can we transition to a system free of single use plastics?

Key opportunity areas emerge from a month-long crowdsourcing initiative on Circle Lab

In the past couple of months, we crowdsourced over 400 contributions that highlighted key areas of opportunity, barriers to overcome, inspirational case studies, facts and figures and other key insights from four challenges on Circle Lab. These challenges focused on access over ownership in the household, organic waste in the city, fashion education, and single-use plastics.

We analysed and clustered all submissions into five key areas of opportunity that we believe are worth digging into deeper. By publishing the substance of these discussions, we hope that you too can find inspiration and examples to lead the transition to a circular economy.

Part Three: this post is the third in a series of four. Read Part One, Part Two, Part Four.

The “Beyond Plastics” challenge looked at opportunities beyond alternative materials. We need new, radical, and systemic solutions for these single-use plastics — from straws and coffee cups to disposable utensils –, without compromising on the convenience they introduced into our lives in the first place. We hope these ideas will help to nudge you in the right direction, and to inspire your own circular solutions, wherever you are in the world!

1 | Bring back the milkman

Not too long ago, people still delivered milk to our doorsteps and drinking coffee was almost exclusively a sit-down experience. While our need for convenience has dramatically increased since plastics were first introduced, there are still valuable opportunities in learning from and adapting past models to suit our current needs and alleviate our dependency on plastics. What rituals and systems could we bring back into fashion today?

How might we look at our past for inspiration and reintroduce plastic-free models into our lives?

Upgrade your unpacking

Based on a submission by Kate Rushton

RePack is a reusable packaging service that will save the world from trash. It brings people and retailers together in a loop of good. Customers return the empty packaging via the postal service and RePack can be used for at least 20 cycles. How can we use something similar to reduce single use plastic packaging sometimes used for e-commerce deliveries?

Bring the product home

“We used to live more sustainably in the past– in the case of milk, for example, my parents used to go to the market to refill their bottles, whereas now, tonnes of milk bottles and tetrabricks are thrown away every day.” — Idoia Letona Castrillo

2 | Make the right choices easy to make

Alternatives to single use plastics — both at the business and consumer level — already exist, yet companies and employees still struggle to make the most of these low hanging fruits. Incumbent company policies might make it harder for employees to choose reusable options over disposable ones, for example, and physical infrastructure such as water taps might not be readily available to support such sustainable choices. For product designers and supply chain managers, the information available about alternative materials and existing solution providers is in no way structured to support good decision-making as of yet.

But the key to breaking bad habits is to make it easier to form better ones.

How might we empower and make it easy for organisations and their employees to do so?
“I wanted to use my reusable cup for coffee at my office cafeteria but
was told the catering company policy didn’t allow this, because they
claimed we could sue them if we got sick. We need to change this
type of policies.” — Idoia Letona Castrillo
Refill bottle to refill with free tap water in Ireland. Source: Refill

Tap into existing infrastructure

Based on a submission by Meadhbh O Leary Fitzpatrick

Refill Ireland is an environmental project aiming to make Irish towns and cities tap water refill friendly for everyone while on the go (like the old days!). They locate and encourage the creation of locations where filling your reusable water bottle for FREE from refill stations becomes an easy everyday habit. Their aim is to substantially reduce the amount of, and dependence on, consuming our drinking water in single use plastic bottles.

Highlight the right alternatives

“There are so many options for alternative packaging materials; designs; and business models. Why not create a website with a decision tree to help guide people on what material/business model/design they should use for their product to reduce the impact on the environment?” — Kate Rushton

3 | Together in the same boat

Single-use plastics permeate most public and private spaces — from coffee shops and fast food restaurants to train stations and office buildings. Their pervasiveness is proportional to the convenience they bring the consumer, but in their pervasiveness also lies a tremendous opportunity to collaborate across industries and across borders. By including retailers, supermarkets, coffee chains, and many more on board, we could design new solutions that completely overhaul the future of convenience.

How might we collaborate on designing delivery and take-back systems that follow along and cater to the consumer that’s constantly on-the-go?
Bring your own container! Source: Nada

Swapping containers

Based on a submission by Daylen Sawchuk

Instead of grocers getting items for bulk sections in plastic bags, manufacturers and retailers could swap containers. One lid could be used for transportation so the bin is flat and another lid can be used once the item arrives in store. This is based on how Nada, a zero-waste grocery store in Vancouver works with their suppliers.

Inspired by Uber

What if all coffee shops used the same reusable cups for takeaway coffee/tea and you could return your cup “uber-style”?” — Kate Rushton

Grab, go, drop!

Based on a submission by Natalya Amirova

58 billions of paper cups are thrown in the landfill every year. It’s time for sustainability to come down from the ivory tower and hit the streets. The paper cup is emblematic of today’s throw away culture and Vessel is working to make it a thing of the past. Vessel offers a reusable to-go mug that customers can take with them and then drop off later at different participating cafes throughout the city, for free!

Source: Vessel

4 | Where did you come from, where did you go?

Thinking through a product’s entire lifecycle and beyond end of use is often key to uncovering new opportunities to generate value. Whether that’s designing cutlery that biodegrades, straws that you can eat, fabric bags that can be turned into new textiles again, or soap containers that eventually dissolve in the water– countless opportunities exist to extend the life of and optimise the resources we use to make our lives easier.

How might we redesign convenience products for appropriate lifecycles?

Perpetual Plastics

Based on a submission by Federica Parissi

What if you could make almost anything from plastic waste? The Perpetual Plastic Project is an interactive plastic recycling installation where plastic waste is recycled on the spot into new products by 3D-printers. They are a mobile interactive recycling installation that can be booked for events, festivals or other occasions to get the visitors involved and educated about the recycling of waste plastics!

The Perpetual Plastic Project at The Dutch Design Week 2012. Source: The Perpetual Plastic Project
“Making products deconstructable, so materials can be easily separated for reuse/recycling, should be the number one rule in product design, and I think the right to repair and to deconstruct should be recognised by law!” — Ian VH

5 | Think Big, Start small

Pilot projects and initiatives, while small in scale, help shine a light on and raise awareness of the problems they address. They enable us to obtain buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders, and act as an important signal to the rest of the world– that we acknowledge the problems at hand and are willingness to cooperate. Whether scaling these initiatives is feasible or not–

How might we use lighthouse projects to experiment on the ground and increase buy-in to move beyond plastics?
Source: The Plastic Soup Foundation

“Ekoplaza, a Dutch chain of organic food supermarkets, opened its first “plastic-free” aisles in some of its supermarkets, and others are following suit, like the New Zealand supermarket Countdown. This is the beginning of a public discussion and education about plastic; it’s not without its criticisms but, in my opinion, this is a good start! “ — Claude Dewerse

These themes also served to support the development of new solutions at Beyond Next, the circularity festival, where four teams presented their final solutions on stage on February 7 and 8, in front of a diverse jury of corporate, academic, and governmental representatives, including the Ministry of Infrastructure & Environment, Holland Circular Hotspot, and the KDV, among others.

Sign up for the Circle Lab newsletter to find out which solutions came out of the event! >

Are you working on an idea around any of these themes? Get in touch with us!