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Ten ways to have a more sustainable Christmas

Dr Pamela Yeow is Reader in Management in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics whose research currently focuses on ethical consumerism. She shares ideas to celebrate Christmas more sustainably in 2021.

In the run-up to Christmas, consumers are bombarded by Black Friday sales, tear-jerking adverts and a seemingly endless parade of stuff on our social media feeds.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t even started to think about Christmas shopping and gift-giving yet! This is particularly so in the aftermath of the COP26 climate summit and the twelve-day marathon of presentations, debates and negotiations.

COP26 has brought home to us the importance and utter urgency of the climate emergency. Even with the agreements in place, more needs to be done to reverse the negative impact of decades of neglect of our planet.

My colleagues and I have been doing research on single-use plastic for a while now, and recent research has demonstrated that the inconsistent messaging and confusion around what and how to recycle means that householders are not recycling as much as they would like.

Of course, recycling is not the only thing we can do. Reducing consumption of single-use plastic, as well as repurposing or reusing single-use plastic is also key to helping our planet survive.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of all the upcoming festive consumption, here are ten ideas to help you have an enjoyable and more sustainable Christmas.

1. Instead of buying a tree, plant a tree

A two meter Christmas tree is equivalent to 16kg of carbon dioxide if it ends up in landfill. Why not plant a tree instead this Christmas? Websites like MoreTrees and Dedicate a Tree make this easy to do, and you can even gift a tree to others.

2. If you can’t imagine Christmas without a tree, rent one instead

Rented Christmas trees are a growing trend. For the rest of the year, rented trees are re-planted, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and providing a home for local wildlife, before brightening up your living room for the festive season.

3. Give a pre-loved gift

Want to give your loved ones something truly one of a kind? A thoughtful second-hand gift for someone who loves vintage, antiques or collectibles will be very much appreciated.

4. Give experiences

Often it feels like we have to spend a particular amount of money on gifts and sometimes that is justifiable. Rather than giving people things that might not be appreciated or even used, treat them to a memorable experience, such as a trip to the theatre or zookeeper for the day experience – the possibilities are endless!

5. Make a sustainable swap at the dinner table

Research tells us that eating a plant-based diet can help with climate change. If you can’t face cancelling that turkey order, consider swapping a side dish or starter for a vegetarian or vegan alternative. The planet will thank you.

6. Use recyclable wrapping paper

Avoid plastic glitter wrapping paper that can’t be recycled, or better still, use recycled or plain brown paper to wrap gifts. Whilst you’re at it, why not use paper tape as well.

7. Make do and mend your Christmas decorations

With a bit of extra care, Christmas decorations like tinsel will last for several years. If you’re feeling crafty, why not try making your own decorations out of things lying around the home?

8. Wear your old Christmas jumper

If you need to wear a Christmas jumper, try to re-wear your old one, swap or buy second-hand as it’s been found that most Christmas jumpers in the UK are made using plastic!

9. Shop locally

Reduce the carbon footprint of your Christmas shopping by opting for local retailers where possible. It also saves on packaging compared to a mountain of deliveries (Amazon boxes, we’re looking at you).

10. Go plastic-free where you can

Christmas crackers are another source of hidden festive plastic, but plastic free alternatives are becoming more popular. In 2019, John Lewis & Partners and Waitrose announced that its Christmas crackers from 2020 will no longer include plastic toys or be decorated with plastic glitter. Other large retailers quickly followed suit.

Finding ways to make Christmas more sustainable this year not only helps the planet, but can be lots of fun! Let us know your sustainable swaps in the comments below.

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Make soap not waste: the MBA graduate on a mission to reduce plastic packaging

Martina Schwarz wearing a grey t-shirt standing against a white background.

Blackmarket founder Martina Schwarz. Photo by Simon Habegger.

Martina Schwarz came up with the idea for a refillable soap that produces no plastic waste while writing her MBA thesis. Her business, Blackmarket, launches this September.

What should you do when you’re worried that the role you are great at is contributing to climate change?

This was the dilemma facing Martina Schwarz, an experienced packaging designer who’s worked with the likes of Unilever, Procter and Gamble and Kellogg’s, when she enrolled on the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA.

“A friction started to develop between my work and my values”, Martina explains. “I decided to write my MBA thesis on packaging and sustainability to incorporate my experience as an insider in the packaging industry with a focus on sustainability.”

Martina began her exploratory thesis with a focus on skincare, but when the pandemic hit, pivoting to handwash seemed like a natural step. In April 2020, Martina left her job to focus full time on her business, Blackmarket, and its first product: a refillable liquid handwash that uses no single-use plastic packaging.

“The first question I always get asked is why ‘Blackmarket’”, she explains, “You could say that the name has negative connotations, but I’ve chosen it so that people will ask questions. Blackmarket symbolises a desire to change the status quo and challenge someone’s thought process about how we design products.”

Blackmarket’s handwash stands out from mainstream refillable competitors through its innovative delivery system. Through her research on the MBA, Martina realised that a lot of personal care and cosmetic products are made mainly of water. By removing the water, she was able to design packaging similar to that of dishwasher tablets or laundry detergents that dissolves in contact with warm water.

“It’s about rethinking how we create packaging”, says Martina, “the film is a thickener that gives the handwash the gel texture that we recognise, so the packaging becomes part of the product. By removing the water at the packaging stage, the product weighs 95% less than its competitors, so transportation emissions are also reduced. Why would we bother to transport something that we can get on tap at home?”

The film packaging of Blackmarket liquid soap is the thickener that gives it a recognisable texture. Image credit – Blackmarket.

Blackmarket’s innovative approach saw Martina receive the UAL Creative Enterprise Award for Innovation in July 2021. She receives £5000 and a mentorship from IBM iX, who sponsored the award.

“The prize money is absolutely incredible – as a startup founder, there are a lot of costs associated with launching a cosmetic product – but the mentorship is as valuable as the prize money if not more,” says Martina. “I’m so pleased that IBM iX is the sponsor – I’m looking forward to using the mentorship programme to focus on behavioural change and the customer journey, making it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices.”

While, environmentally speaking, the best choice for handwash is a bar of soap, Martina’s market research found that the majority of consumers aren’t willing to make the switch from liquid soap. The product aims to make it as easy as possible for consumers to make pro-environmental choices.

Blackmarket has launched with a Kickstarter campaign, and Martina has an ambitious vision for the business: “Long term, we want to launch new products like shampoo and conditioner, but also to think about packaging differently. The nature of packaging is to be something that protects, but I really want with Blackmarket to think of that quite differently. I want to change perceptions of packaging to something that is long term, precious, and to be proud of how much you have used it.”

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