4 Steps to a Plastic-Free Workplace

Oct 01, 2020 - 5 min read

What is plastic?

Before the 20th century, plastic (from Greek plastikos – from plassein ‘to mould’) was an adjective meaning ‘pliable’ or ‘able to be moulded’. Nowadays, however, the definition of plastic is ‘artificial polymer’. A polymer (from Greek polumeros ‘having many parts’) is a long chain of identical molecules.

One of the most common natural polymers is cellulose. In 1869, American Engineer, John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920), created the first artificial polymer by combining cellulose with camphor. The product was celluloid, and it was widely used in industry, especially in cinematography.

The next significant event in the story of plastic was the 1907 invention of Bakelite by Belgian chemist, Leo Baekerland (1863-1944). Containing no naturally occurring molecules, Bakelite was the first fully synthetic plastic. For more than 100 years, plastic has been filling the world.

Recycling plastic

It’s the long molecular chains in plastic that give it flexibility and strength. Each time plastic goes through the recycling process, the polymer chains are broken, becoming shorter and of lower quality. When recycled plastic is used in the manufacture of new product, virgin material is added to the mix in order to raise the quality.

So, not only is most plastic non-biodegradable, it’s also not ever so recyclable. The same bit of plastic can only be recycled two or three times before it’s useless, and even when products are labelled, ‘made from recycled plastic’, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re made solely from recycled plastic.

The only truly effective way to reduce plastic waste is to reduce the demand for plastic products by not using plastic.

1. No more bottled water

Water is essential for wellbeing; everyone, in every workplace, needs to drink throughout the day; and as bottled water is hygienic, convenient, and affordable, it’s a popular solution.

In fact, approximately 7,700,000,000 bottles of water are purchased every year in the UK.

The best way to eliminate something is to provide a better alternative. At The Boiling Tap Company, we believe that the better alternative comes in the form of a unit that dispenses pure water, both chilled and boiling – on tap. The provision of reusable glass bottles will make your team’s daily hydration pleasurable and totally plastic free.

2. Goodbye to disposable cups and cutlery

Disposable cups for hot drinks are made of a complex mixture of paper and plastic, and without the appropriate machinery, these materials can’t be easily separated. So, if your takeaway coffee cup is ‘100% recyclable’, that might just mean, in theory. So, when you’re next shopping at the wholesaler’s, don’t pick up packets of disposable cups; instead, buy some mugs and use them over and over again, just like at home.

Plastic knives, forks, and spoons are very rarely re-used. Each piece is used for a few minutes and then disposed of – not always down the recycling route. Providing metal cutlery for your staff team means there’s no further need for flimsy plastic cutlery and the environmental disaster it represents.

3. Reduce packaging

In the UK, we use 2,000,000 tonnes of plastic packaging each year.

One way to cut down on packaging is to buy in bulk. Four toilet rolls are wrapped in one layer of plastic; and so are 24 toilet rolls. Yes, the 24 rolls take more plastic than the four – but a lot less than six lots of four. A five-litre bottle of washing-up liquid comprises more plastic than a half-litre bottle – but a lot less than 10 half-litre bottles.

The same applies to stationery supplies. Keep an inventory of your stores and plan purchases, so you don’t find yourself dashing out for a single stapler or a packet of elastic bands, envelopes, or pens. And while we’re talking stationery, here’s an idea: why not change over from pens to pencils.

Worldwide, approximately 1,000,000 plastic bags are thrown away every minute – that’s 1,440,000,000 per day!

The carrier bag is a category of packaging that’s actually rather easy to eliminate. The answer? Company-branded canvas bags. If every staff member gets into the habit of taking one of these bags out on work-related errands and for private use, a lot of plastic bags will not be used, and the canvas bag will be announcing your brand’s environmental policy to the world.

4. Audit your waste

Maybe a totally plastic-free workplace is an unrealistic goal – at the moment. There are plastic components in so many of our most essential tools, including laptops and printers, furniture, spectacles, footwear … Logistics wouldn’t allow – yet – a total elimination of plastic.

So, some degree of recycling is necessary, and for your company’s recycling activity to be effective, you need an engaging recycling policy. Make it known that the recycling policy is important. Educate your team about the materials they throw away and what happens to them. Provide plenty of labelled bins, dividing recyclable waste into different categories. Not only does this increase the likelihood of the waste being accepted and actually recycled (rather than discarded and sent to landfill), but it facilitates audits of your waste.

If every workplace were plastic free …

The invention of celluloid, in 1869, was hailed as the saviour of the elephant and the turtle, because this wonderful new material could be used in a way that emulated natural materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell. A growing enthusiasm for billiards had led to the culling of more and more elephants for the manufacture of ivory billiard balls, and the social conscience was piqued.

In 2020, the world’s oceans are full of microplastics – tiny fragments of broken-down polymers that have been dumped at sea. These (sometimes toxic) microplastics are in the food chain, affecting the biological functions of thousands of species. For those species whose reproductive systems are adversely affected, plastic pollution could be a direct factor in their extinction.