When we talk about innovation, much of the time we mean making things faster, more effective or more efficient. There's a whole other side to the innovation coin, though – and it's every bit as valuable. The search for cleaner, greener products and processes is only going to get more urgent as time goes by. Businesses of all sizes are looking at new ways to reduce the impact they're having on the environment. However, if those efforts are to amount to more than just a very small drop in an ever-rising ocean, it's worth thinking about the packaging as much as the product itself.
Iceland (the supermarket chain, not the country) is the first major retailer so far to pledge to ditch plastic packaging materials in 100% of its own-brand goods. They've set themselves a 5-year deadline to make good on the promise, after a survey reported that the move would be applauded by 80% of their customers.
The statistics on one-use plastics are pretty shocking. 2 billion plastic straws are discarded every year in London alone, for example. Close to 8 billion plastic bottles are ditched annually across the UK. Meanwhile, non-recyclable plastics are finding their way into the oceans at a horrifying rate and the race is on to find alternative materials.
As for what those alternatives might be, there's some really interesting thought and work going into that at the moment. In Iceland's case, they're looking at ready-meal trays incorporating wooden boards and new linings for their packaging tubs. While the plastic films they're using to seal many products are still a problem, they're working on a cellulose-based replacement material that would be both ecologically safe and sustainable.
Other innovative solutions we're seeing to the plastics crisis include: • Polystyrene coffee cups being replaced with compostable paper versions. • Edible drinks cups made from grain wafers, which remain solid for up to an hour without affecting the taste of their contents. • High-tech “bioplastic” materials that are made from plant matter and completely biodegradable.
Of course, developing a greener product or process doesn't necessarily have to mean developing entirely new materials. Sometimes, a simple change in thought or approach can be just as powerful. We've already seen the success that a simple 5p charge for a plastic bag can have on the amount of dangerous waste the UK is putting out. Following on from that success, plans are now in place to encourage supermarkets to feature entirely plastic-free aisles. Meanwhile, serious consideration is being given to establishing a research fund to investigate “plastics innovation” for developing nations.
We won't be getting rid of plastic packaging entirely any time soon, of course. That said, the government has pledged to eliminate all unnecessary plastic waste within the next 25 years. That's very much a long-term vision, but there's plenty that can be done right now. If you want an example of true innovation in the plastics field, look no further than MacRebur, winner of the 2016 Virgin Media Business Vroom award. This laterally thinking company is actually finding ways of using plastics to address the plastics problem itself! Their road surfacing material incorporates recycled plastic pellets, attacking the waste crisis and improving road quality at a single stroke.
At RIFT, we always talk about innovation bringing rewards – and that's a crucial message to spread. Sometimes, though, it's worth remembering what the non-financial benefits are. Every day, business innovators are solving problems that affect much more than their own bottom lines. That's the spirit that R&D Tax Credits are setting out to recognise. Innovation benefits business, the UK economy and people's lives the world over.
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