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As concern about plastic waste grows, search for sustainable packaging goes mainstream

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

Nicole Doucet and Jess Page were met with skepticism when they first tried to persuade retailers to sell their brand of bottled water. Consumers — the young entrepreneurs were told during early sales calls five years ago — would not pay more for water packaged in aluminum containers instead of plastic.

Their Chicago-based startup, Open Water, was a bit early to the party. Food and beverage companies that cater to on-the-go consumers are rethinking their packaging amid growing concern about single-use plastics clogging swaths of ocean and killing sea life, with the likes of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo launching aluminum bottled water as part of commitments to cut plastic usage and waste.

A flat plastic lid that does not need a straw is shown on a cup of Starbucks iced tea on July 9, 2018 in Sausalito, California.

“It has gone very mainstream,” said Doucet, CEO of Open Water, which counts Hyatt hotels, salad chain Sweetgreen and Second City as customers.

Plastic, most of which is made from oil and natural gas, has raised particular environmental ire because half of the plastic produced globally is designed to be used just once, resulting in 300 million tons of plastic waste a year, according to a 2018 United Nations report. The top items recovered at beach cleanups are, after cigarette butts, drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, drink lids, straws and stirrers. At the current rate of disposal, the oceans by 2050 will contain, by weight, more plastic than fish, the report said.

“As more consumers have more convenience products marketed to them, the waste becomes unmanageable,” said Ivy Schlegel, senior research specialist in plastics at Greenpeace USA.

Just Salad, a fast-casual chain with 47 locations, sells a reusable salad bowl for $1 and gives customers a free topping when they use it, a program that the company says diverted 75,000 pounds of single-use plastic from landfills last year.

Starbucks last month announced that by 2030 it would reduce by 50% the amount of waste sent to landfills. Starbucks stores produce 455,000 tons of packaging waste annually. The coffee chain is rolling out straw-less lids for its cold drinks as it phases out plastic straws from its 30,000 stores worldwide, and in partnership with McDonald’s launched a global challenge to design a more recyclable or compostable cup for hot drinks.

The aluminum Open Water uses has a much higher recycling rate than single-use plastic bottles and boxed water, but it isn’t perfect. An aluminum bottle takes three times more energy to produce than plastic. Open Water this year plans to launch a carbon offset program to make production carbon neutral.