Meet the brands taking on ‘the asterisk’ in the war against plastic waste

From compostable packaging to plant-based alternatives, a new generation of brands are looking to combat plastic waste while striving to educate confused consumers about the complex recycling process.

Since BBC’s Blue Planet II highlighted the damage plastic pollution is having on our marine life, consumers have been scrambling to become more environmentally friendly.

But the wide array of symbols on household packaging is confusing people, not helped by the fact that different councils provide various levels of recycling.

So while consumers are increasingly trying to dispose of plastic correctly, many are unaware that more than half of the packaging they put in their recycle bin actually ends up in landfill or is burned, according to figures from the National Audit Office (NAO).

This is giving rise to a host of eco-friendly brands, which are not only creating plastic alternatives but taking it upon themselves to educate consumers about how they can more effectively tackle the war on waste.

Removing compromise

Disposable coffee capsules are one area where alternatives are being explored. One such brand is compostable coffee pod firm Halo, which was created as “a result of frustration” after founder Nils Leonard read an article explaining how Nespresso capsules take at least 300 years to decompose.

Research done by Halo suggests around 39,000 coffee capsules are produced globally every minute, 29,000 of which are sent to landfill. That means, 20 billion capsules containing aluminium or plastic are being produced every year, enough to circle the earth 14 times over.

Even Nespresso’s former CEO Jean-Paul Gaillard has described the waste associated with the brand as “a disaster” and urged consumers not to sacrifice the environment for convenience.

A lot of products suggest they’re biodegradable or recyclable but there’s often an asterisk next to that claim.

Nils Leonard, Halo

Leonard, also the founder of Uncommon Creative Studios, says: “The overarching inspiration behind the move was to enter a category that everyone loves. We want to give people something they want that won’t hurt the planet. Nespresso was a revelation when it launched, but it came with a massive environmental cost.”

Halo’s coffee pods are a 100% natural blend of fibres including bamboo and paper that can be thrown in a home food bin when finished and the pods are expected to break down within about four weeks.

Nespresso has made efforts to increase recycling by offering consumers a number of ways to dispose of used pods, but critics don’t think it goes far enough.

Taking on the ‘asterisk’

Eco-friendly brands have a responsibility to educate consumers, according to Leonard, who believes, people understand plastic waste is wrong but they don’t know how to improve the situation.

“As part of the next stage [the initial conversation being the first stage] it’s up to eco-friendly brands to provide an education. We’re eager to breakdown the difference between biodegradable, compostable and recyclable,” he explains.

Part of the problem is that many brands claim their products are recyclable or biodegradable when only part of the packaging is, which is confusing consumers.

“What we’re doing now is taking on the asterisk. A lot of products suggest they’re biodegradable or recyclable but there’s often an asterisk next to that claim,” he says.

For instance, some companies say they are ‘industrially compostable’ which means packaging is collected by organised food waste schemes, but these are not available everywhere. “It’s not the same as putting it your garden and growing a tomato,” he says.

Halo’s compostable coffee pods are designed to break down within about four weeks.

Reiterating Leonard’s sentiment regarding educating consumers about the recycling process is plant-based bottle brand, Eco For Life. The company’s director Mike Shore says recycling in the UK “just isn’t good enough” and claims that currently only 20% of plastic waste is actually recycled.

“The problem with plastic recycling is confusion. For instance you might buy a yogurt and it will say ‘pot widely recycled, label currently not recycled’ but it’s glued to the pot so it renders it irrelevant.

“When we launched there was still a little bit of adverse publicity against plant-based products, with people saying ‘we can’t recycle that’ and ‘we can’t do that‘. Then, when Blue Planet II aired it brought to the forefront the fact recycling in the UK just isn’t good enough anyway,” he says.

As a business this is going to cost us more money but it’s an absolute must-have for a business whose values are centred around honestly and doing the right thing.

Amelia Harvey, The Collective

While Eco For Life’s current bottle lid is not recyclable this is something the brand plans to rectify before the end of the year.

“We have to work hard to push plant-based alternatives. I guess it’s a bit like veganism in the way that veganism used to be considered a bit of a swear word but now it’s bang on-trend and talked about, just like people are now getting into plant-based things,” Shore says.

Halo’s Leonard is also working to remove the stigma attached to eco-friendly brands, as he says many consumers assume that if products are good for the planet they must compromise in other areas.

“It dawned on me that there’s this unsaid choice between getting something convenient or something beautiful but having to sacrifice the world to do it. It’s like in fashion, you can either have Gucci or you can have something that’s good for the planet that isn’t very pretty,” he says.

Halo looks to combat this perception by sourcing “top quality” coffee beans from Colombia, Nepal and Kenya, while still being environmentally-friendly.

“We want to set a new standard for coffee capsules and in a year we will have forced the whole industry to change,” he claims.

Eco For Life’s bottles are 100% plant-based and contain no harmful oils.

Leonard isn’t concerned about the growing market, which inevitably means more competition for Halo, instead he views the anti-plastic movement as a wider issue and is eager for more brands to join the fight.

“My fantasy is that all coffee pods in the world are eventually compostable. We’re not concerned with being exclusive, we want the entire category to change,” he says.

“Once that happens the conversation will change to ‘who has the best coffee’.”

Despite advocating for the anti-plastic movement, Eco For Life’s Shore acknowledges plastic products still play an important role in society.

“We’re not trying to reinvent everything, we’re not trying to put people off plastic completely. I still believe plastic serves its place in this world but I don’t believe it belongs in food and beverage,” he says.

Eco For Life bottles are 100% plant-based and don’t contain any harmful oils which prevent regular plastic bottles from being reused.

Finding a solution

While the founders of Eco For Life and Halo created their brands to offer the market an alternative, already established company The Collective Dairy has had to find a way to reduce the amount of plastic it uses.

Amelia Harvey, founder of the New Zealand dairy brand, says the company’s traditional black yogurt lids were not recyclable because they “couldn’t be picked up in the recycling belt”.

The Collective Dairy is injecting green ink into its black lids making them fully recyclable.

After carrying out extensive research, Harvey discovered a dying process that involves injecting green dye into the black lids, which makes the packing entirely recyclable.

“It just gives people comfort that the products they’re recycling will be put back in the loop rather than just going to land waste,” Harvey says.

But it comes at a cost.

“As a business this is going to cost us more money but it’s an absolute must-have for a business whose values are centred around honestly and doing the right thing. The difference for an owner-run business compared to a corporate company is that I want to do things tomorrow,” she adds.

Like Halo and Eco For Life, The Collective Dairy also wants to simplify the process for consumers after realising shoppers are often confused about whether or not to remove labels or lids when recycling.

“We just wanted to make it as easy for them [consumers] to understand as possible in what’s such a complicated area at the moment,” Harvey says.

As the backlash against plastic intensifies, the market for alternatives will only increase. It is incumbent on these brands – and those that still use plastic – to help educate consumers about what can and cannot be recycled though, because until there are clear guidelines the problem will never go away.