Plastic-free fantastic: How London is leading the packaging revolution

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 (Kilo)
(Kilo)

When Stu Smith, founder of Tottenham-based skateboard brand Lovenskate, worked as a commercial printer, he spent a decent part of his day throwing away plastic.

“This stuff would arrive — jackets, bumbags, coasters — and each item would be individually wrapped in plastic. We’d unbag it, chuck that packaging away, print the item and then wrap it all up again in new plastic, knowing full well that the first thing the customer was going to do would be rip open that packaging and put it straight in the bin. And so it went on.”

Determined to do things differently when he set up Lovenskate, which produces printed skateboards, Smith eventually landed on packaging the final products in bespoke printed paper bags — “artwork in themselves” — via experiments with bread bags and potato sacks. (He also got his suppliers to stop sending the component parts of the boards he produces wrapped in plastic.)

Lovenskate founder Stu Smith and a pro board (Lovenskate)
Lovenskate founder Stu Smith and a pro board (Lovenskate)

“There’s been a really positive response, from customers and from other skate companies wanting details so they can do it too,” says Smith. “A couple of stockists have told us that sometimes a customer will say it’s a faff to get the board out of the paper bag. My response is always the same: it’ll be more of a faff explaining to your kids why the ocean is full of plastic.”

From deodorant brands like Fussy to takeaway companies such as DabbaDrop, Lovenskate is part of a wave of London-based businesses demonstrating viable alternatives to polluting single-use plastic. With the equivalent of a rubbish truck of plastic being poured into the world’s oceans every minute and estimates that more than half the plastic we put out for recycling ends up in incinerators — in turn contributing to toxic air pollution and the climate crisis — there’s never been a more pressing time for companies to ditch the disposable stuff.

This was the founding principle for friends Claire Marchais and Jerilee Quintana, who set out to make plastic-free grocery shopping as straightforward as getting an online supermarket delivery when they launched Fair-Well in 2019. The roaming refill store sees Charlie the renovated Seventies milk float visit the streets of north London loaded with its 200 or so items, including oats, nuts, oils, coffee and beauty products. When Charlie pulls up, customers just need to head out of their front doors armed with containers and fill up with the products they’ve pre-ordered on Fair-Well’s website.

Fair-Well’s founders and float (Fair-Well)
Fair-Well’s founders and float (Fair-Well)

“We officially launched six months before the pandemic,” says Marchais. “For lots of businesses that would have been really tough but for us it was positive because people were home. The end of lockdown hasn’t been a problem though. In fact business has just got stronger and stronger, and we’re in the process of expanding our catchment area. People want plastic-free living to be convenient and we’re proving it can be.”

While companies like Fair-Well begin free of single-use plastics, others are making the conscious decision to switch once established. This was the case for natural ice lolly brand Lickalix, which was set up in 2014 and started using 100 per cent plastic-free, compostable packaging in 2019.

“We had wanted to do it before but the technology just wasn’t available,” says co-founder Karis Gesua, who runs the vegan business with her husband Dominic. “Our current packaging is amazing — it looks and acts like a plastic film, and you can freeze it and print on it, but it’s actually made from sustainable wood pulp.”

Lickalix’s Karis Gesua (left) and the Lickalix campervan (Lickalix)
Lickalix’s Karis Gesua (left) and the Lickalix campervan (Lickalix)

Although the switch to becoming plastic-free has increased costs for Lickalix, Gesua says they decided to swallow that because it was something they wanted to do. “As a company we make it work — we’d never go back just to save money. What’s the point of putting your morals aside to make a bit more profit? I’m so pleased we’ve done it and so proud to be a small family-run business leading the way.”

According to Nina Schrank, who runs Greenpeace UK’s plastics campaign, packaging innovations and the rise of reuse and refill models are more crucial than ever given that, despite growing public concern, plastic production is set to double by 2040.

While people are generally aware of the negative implications of plastic packaging for our oceans (an extensive review of scientific articles found that plastic bags and flexible packaging are the deadliest types of plastic in the sea), less well known is the link between plastic and the climate crisis, says the campaigner.

“Up to 99 per cent of plastic is made from oil and gas, and the big oil companies are investing billions in plastic production, just as the world acknowledges we need to stop burning fossil fuels,” says Schrank. “This means that turning off the tap on plastic is part of combating climate change.”

For the punters enjoying a pint and a pizza in Hackney Wick’s Crate Brewery, few, if any, will be aware that inside the nondescript warehouse opposite is a packaging company setting out to play its part in both eliminating single-use plastic packaging and combating climate change. To do this, Notpla makes edible and biodegradable packaging out of seaweed.

Notpla’s co-founder Pierre Paslier and their seaweed paper (Notpla)
Notpla’s co-founder Pierre Paslier and their seaweed paper (Notpla)

“Seaweed is an incredible material which grows up to one metre per day, doesn’t require any inputs and locks in carbon at the bottom of the seabed for thousands of years,” says Pierre Paslier, co-founder of Notpla. “If we can use some of that seaweed for packaging, we can eliminate single-use plastics while cutting the amount of climate change-causing gases in the atmosphere. It pretty much ticks all of the boxes.”

Notpla has partnered with Just Eat in London to trial home compostable seaweed-lined takeaway boxes and seaweed sauce sachets. It is also in the process of developing seaweed paper using the waste from its extraction process.

“Plastic has created a huge, complex mess so there won’t be one single solution,” says Paslier. “But if we can stop stupid uses of it, develop reusables and combine that with disposable natural materials like Notpla, then we are well on the way to creating a future without single-use plastic.”

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