We reached out to Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rising use in plastic particularly in the hospitality industry. She also discusses some of the innovative collaborations she has seen that have been creating solutions that put people and the planet first.
Hi Sian! Thanks for joining us. Please could you introduce yourself and give a little insight into your background and experience?
Absolutely! I’m co-founder of A Plastic Planet, an international campaign organisation with one simple goal - to ignite and inspire the world to turn off the plastic tap.
But in some ways, I am also a highly unlikely eco-warrior. My background is varied. I’m a serial entrepreneur having set up my first business at 25 (a Michelin star restaurant in Soho), founding a packaging design agency specialising in drink and beauty, and most recently co-founding a skincare brand that opened up a new niche in a very crowded space, pregnancy skincare.. So you can imagine, I am no plastic saint! It was upon exiting that business after running it for 11 years and opening up 14 countries that I was advising the board of Plastic Oceans Foundation on the launch of their new documentary – that was my plastic epiphany. The more I found out I knew I had to do something to help ‘turn off the plastic tap’. Although it seems somewhat random, every ounce of experience in my various businesses has really built me for what I do now at A Plastic Planet. Being an entrepreneur also means I am passionate about the power of business to impact change at speed and at scale – which is why we are so pro-business and solutions focused in everything we do.
Covid19 has developed many knock-on problems, one of which is the rising use of plastic. Where have you seen a growing use of plastic and plastic waste across the hospitality and food & drink retail sectors over the past few months?
Valid health concerns have meant our throw-away culture has exploded. For a while we all went backwards. Coffee shops stopped accepting reusable mugs. The use of plastic cutlery and cups has gone through the roof. The PPE we’re told to wear in shops and cafes is all adding to the estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves used every month. If we stitched together every mask already produced, and those projected to be produced, we’d be able to cover the entire landmass of Switzerland. Just one year – which now seems a highly credible time span – would result in 3,000 TRILLION plastic face masks being thrown away if we all adopt them.
But instead of moaning about the problem, we decided to demonstrate that we can protect ourselves AND our planet. So we co-created plastic free PPE ReelShieldFlips, wood pulp derived lightweight visors. So, if you have to have something single use, then these can actually be recycled in the paper waste stream.
Would you say there is a misconception around plastic as a solution to hygiene and safety in these sectors?
At a time where every politician ‘stood by the science’, no-one was really listening to the science on plastic. The virus actually survived longer on plastic than most other materials. But of course we all reverted back to using this toxic dinosaur material out of understandable fear. No-one wants to compromise the health and safety of their employees or the public, but we must remember that all the additional plastic we use now will pollute our planet for centuries. That is the legacy we leave in the name of ‘protecting ourselves’.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis has been used by the plastics lobby as a vehicle to peddle even more plastic. In that brief pause at the beginning of lockdown, the global petrochemical industry lobbied hard. The Plastic Industry Association even wrote to the US Secretary of Health asking him to declare plastic bans a public health risk.
Tell us about the fantastic innovation you have created with Reelbrands and Tams Packaging?
One of the main things I have taken away from the pandemic is that we are surrounded by innovators who have seen the destruction caused by Covid-19 and have set out to create solutions that put people and planet equal first. We all know that we cannot have healthy people without a healthy planet.
We were proud this year to work with packaging designers Reelbrands and Tams Packaging to develop plastic-free visors to protect the public without adding to plastic pollution.
If just one percent of UK masks are thrown away, approximately 10 million will end up in the natural environment every month. They are not easily recyclable and we see them littering our streets everywhere.
The Plastic Free PPE REELShield Flip Visor is made from FSC paper board and cellulose from wood pulp for a clear, mist-free screen. It’s recyclable and home compostable and we have capacity to produce more than one million visors each week. This is not how we usually work. We are in the business of selling change, not things. But we just had to get involved in PPE as we could witness the plastic iceberg looming up ahead very quickly and the most important way to help change happen is to lead by example.
Are there any other inspiring solutions or innovative collaborations which you have seen to continue the industries efforts against the war on plastic?
As an irritatingly optimistic entrepreneur I am very excited by the change and innovation we are seeing, and the pace is picking up.
To reduce our addiction to plastic we need to focus on the three pillars of change – Systems (how can we change how we take, make and have nothing to throw away), Material (when you actually need to take a finite resource from our planet) and Behavioural (the hardest to change as we have trained the public to expect maximum convenience for minimum price). From mycelium to algae coatings and plant proteins to the extraordinary developments in sustainably sourced paper – there are a myriad of new material solutions coming fast. Permanent packaging is going to be a big part of our future as is concentrates. Why are we still shipping products with 95% water content when we can add the water at the point of use?
As ever, where there is change, there is opportunity. The winners will be those that adapt fast. Everyone has a Kodak story and I fear many of the bigger businesses that find it too hard to change course right now, will be tomorrow’s dinosaurs.
Thank you so much for your insights Sian! As businesses and consumers, we all have a responsibility to reduce plastic waste, there really is no excuse anymore. If anyone in the industry wants to get in touch, what is the best way to reach you and the team at A Plastic Planet?