In the UK, the ‘Flexible Plastic Fund’ is an initiative targeting all packaging-related parties – from manufacturers to retailers, consumers and recyclers – to increase the recycling rate of flexible plastic packaging. Established last year by Mars, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever – and with 20 FMCG manufacturers to date as funding partners – the project’s website and content was created by Hubbub. Inside Packaging’s Ryan Ellington spoke to the charity’s co-founder & director, Gavin Ellis, to find out more.

Gavin Ellis, co-founder & director, Hubbub

What is Hubbub?

We’re an environmental charity, set up about eight years ago to try to find new ways to engage people on various sustainability and environmental initiatives. We do that across a whole range of different topics, so packaging is a big part of it.

How do you look to engage with consumers?

From the beginning, design has been a key part of what we do; to look for new and fresh ways of doing things, particularly in terms of communications. Historically, the way that anything related to the environment or recycling packaging was communicated – particularly back in 2014 when we set up – was uninspiring.

The way you get people’s attention about environmental issues isn’t by reeling off a load of statistics about why it’s the right thing to do, but by trying to appeal to people’s hearts as well as their minds; to look for different routes in. It’s not always the environmental message that you have to lead with.

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For example, we wanted to do something that raised the profile of plastics in the oceans. We built a boat made out of recycled plastic that takes school kids and corporate volunteers out so they can fish for plastic – like plastic fishing trips. They then recycle the plastic, some of which goes towards being recycled into future boats. They gain an understanding of the circular economy, but also they’re getting involved in it, getting their hands dirty – and having a bit of fun with it as well.

We’re finding innovative ways to try to get that point across.

What’s Hubbub’s involvement with the ‘Flexible Plastic Fund’?

It’s around communicating to consumers that flexible plastics are recyclable. To do that, you’ve got to go back to square one: Put yourself in the shoes of your average person on the street, who by in large is pretty confused about plastic. There’s a lot of bad press around plastic, full stop. A lot of people just think plastic’s bad, anything else is good. 

What we’ve been trying to do is find simple ways of communicating the message about the kinds of flexible plastics that aren’t recyclable in curbside recycling or can be recycled at your local supermarket.

We tried to think about how we can easily explain it; to work out the thought process and make it as understandable as possible for people who, understandably, aren’t experts in plastic and recycling.

How does the fund work?

In collaboration with manufacturers, retailers and recyclers, the fund intends to give flexible plastic a stable value. At the same time, the fund is working to develop collections, to increase the supply of recycled plastic so the industry becomes more ‘circular’.

According to research, the UK produced over 309,000 tonnes of flexible plastic packaging in 2020 – about 22% of the country’s consumer plastic waste. Only 8% is currently recycled, so there’s a huge opportunity for improvement. The fund aims to tap into that by incentivising flexible plastic recycling to make it financially sustainable in the UK.

We need consumers’ help to show there is sufficient volume for flexible plastic recycling at a commercial scale, in order to boost investment in recycling infrastructure and technologies.

Would it not be easier to promote alternative materials?

It depends what the materials are – we’ve got a good system in this country for recycling plastic. If you move to a packaging material where that system isn’t in place, then what happens to that packaging once it’s finished with?

The second thing is around carbon emissions. One of the reasons why plastic has been chosen as a packaging option is because it’s light and transportable – that’s good in terms of reducing carbon emissions. If you switch from a plastic water bottle to a glass one, then that’s not plastic anymore, but it’s much heavier, so it’s more expensive and carbon-intensive to transport.

You might be fixing one problem, but you’re creating another one. That life-cycle analysis has to be factored into any decision making about switching from plastic to other materials.