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Listen up brands - it’s time to find creative solutions to waste

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There has been quite some stirring in the plant-based sector lately for the UK government's AM 171, declaring that brands should stop calling plant-based drinks "milk". Apparently this hurts the dairy lobby. Apparently it is also one of the most ridiculous laws we ever heard of. But we could be wrong, there are plenty of those after all.

This demonstrates but one thing: perhaps change should not be in the hands of the governments. Perhaps it should be us, the creative industry, leading the change and finding creative solutions to waste. Governments clearly deserve their good share of blame – but some parts of the industry aren't any better. So who should do what?

We reached out to a much energetic Thomas Herman, Co-Founder at Path, to discuss the topic in more depth below.

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Listen up brands - it’s time to find creative solutions to waste

It’s no secret that the UK’s waste management infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the amount of packaging we’re using - not to mention the kind of materials we’re throwing into the melting pot. But while it’s easy to blame the Government for a lack of investment and ambition in this arena, we all know it’s those profiting from waste (i.e. private businesses) who should really be held accountable.

From a loyalty standpoint, it makes sense for brands to take a lead role in driving a circular economy. After all, with younger generations particularly making more environmentally conscious purchase choices, brands choosing to fight against waste - rather than just create it - are at an obvious advantage. Most brands try to get around the issue via signposting (i.e. the “speak to your local council” messages we’re used to seeing on the back of bottles and boxes) but this again passes the buck back to the consumer, so they don’t have to take the problem into their own hands.

I’m not saying brands aren’t trying. In their defence, it can be tricky to get your head around which materials are best to use, especially when everyone has their own agenda to push - the WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) report is a great tool for showing which materials work best in line with established recycling infrastructure.

But the answer is much simpler than they think. They just need to ensure they use materials they know can be recycled. There’s plenty of research around this already, so it’s not a case of reinventing the wheel. The problem is that the more recyclable-friendly plastics like PET and HDPE tend to be quite plain and unappealing in their rudimentary form, which deters brands from using them.

That’s where design thinking comes in. As the head of a design agency, I can safely say that having a smaller selection of materials to work with – far from stunting innovation, will more likely encourage it. There’s nothing creative folk like more than a challenge and focusing on a limited number of recyclable materials can help us to flex our design muscles and build our expertise as brand experts. Categories which typically use colour, material selection and finish - like beauty and beverage - may have a harder time adapting. But most shampoo bottles are made from HDPE, and that doesn’t appear to have impacted sales. 

Take freezer food brand Cook, for example. Rather than trying to find the uniformity that mass-produced plastics offer, the brand swapped their black food trays for inconsistently-coloured PCR ones. The result is a variety of pastel blue, green or peach trays that elevate the craft feel of the brand, rather than detract from it. The same can be said for Ecover, whose cleaning products are packaged in post-consumer recycled plastics. The brand has used this materials’ greyish-colour to inform their colour scheme, turning their recyclable credentials into a design asset. 

Of course, encouraging innovative and creative thinking in the materials arena is not going to be enough by itself. We also need legislation to do the heavy lifting. The “polluters pay’ producer responsibility scheme that is currently in consultation could be significant.

But unless we find a way of making the disposal of products as simple and as desirable as purchasing it in the first place, the problem of waste will persist. All creatives like to consider themselves “problem solvers” - why not find the solution to something that can actually make a difference? When people wanted same-day delivery, brands threw money at the situation - surely our planet is a bigger priority. 

When you take that perspective, grappling with recycling in this day and age just seems a bit, well, lazy. We need brands to stop looking at waste as a social issue and begin seeing it as an opportunity to truly innovate, whether in-house or via their partners, boosting brand appeal and customer loyalty at the same time.


Thomas Herman is the Co-Founder of Path. Header image: Oatly's official website.
 

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