Last reviewed 3 September 2019

Can SMEs really make a difference in the fight against single use plastic waste? Caroline Hand looks at an initiative set up by Surfers against Sewage aimed at encouraging small businesses to become plastic free.

A quick scan through the environmental media will alert you to the many ways in which large companies are reducing, reusing and recycling plastic, partly in response to the public outcry over ocean plastic pollution. The major retailers, along with many manufacturers, have signed up to WRAP’s Plastics Pact which commits them to four challenging targets:

  1. Eliminate single use plastic packaging.

  2. 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.

  3. 70% of packaging to be effectively recycled or composted.

  4. Plastic packaging to contain 30% recycled content by 2025.

Eight problem plastics are to be eliminated by 2025:

  1. Disposable plastic cutlery.

  2. All polystyrene packaging.

  3. Cotton buds with plastic stems.

  4. Plastic stirrers.

  5. Plastic straws.

  6. Oxo-degradables that break down to create microplastics.

  7. PVC packaging.

  8. Disposable plastic plates and bowls.

The Government is also taking action: in May, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced that a ban on all plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds in England will come into force from April 2020.

Large businesses such as Tesco or Nestlé have the purchasing power to demand changes from their supply chains, particularly by changing their specifications for packaging. SMEs may not be able to make this scale of impact, but this does not mean that they are too small to make a difference. With their face-to-face contact with local communities, they are uniquely placed to serve as role models for their customers in a way that large chains are unable to do.

Plastic Free Business Champions

Surfers against Sewage (SAS), a charity in the forefront of the drive to keep waste out of the oceans, has set up the Plastic Free Business initiative especially for small businesses. Any small business can register on the SAS website and will immediately receive a free toolkit by email. To be certified as a Plastic Free Business Champion, businesses must:

  • audit their current plastic use

  • choose three single-use plastics to eliminate straight away

  • make a plan to substitute further items.

Around 200 businesses have already signed up.

For food businesses…

The Plastic Free Business website includes case studies of several small food businesses which have become Plastic Free Business Champions. For example, the Waves Cafe in Penzance will now only serve takeaway coffees in reusable mugs. Going a step further, the Saropi del Sole takeaway in Moseley, Birmingham introduced a mug exchange. Rather than selling reusable cups, they offer china mugs to customers who later bring them back; this is very popular with local workers. Fish and chip shops are reducing their impact on sealife by banning plastic items like drinks bottles, plastic straws, polystyrene boxes and condiment sachets.

Food businesses selling products like meat or fish can encourage customers to bring in their own reusable plastic boxes. One butcher started wrapping his meat in paper rather than plastic. Customers can also be given the opportunity to bring their own bags for loose vegetables, using them in place of the stores’ single use plastic bags. SAS does, however, advise caution over replacing single use plastics with “compostable” alternatives as these may only decompose in industrial composting conditions (see Q&A on compostable packaging).

Retailers of all kinds are putting pressure on their suppliers to reduce unnecessary plastic packaging. All the orders from Hobbs Kitchen Shop in Penzance now include a request to reduce plastic, for example by replacing plastic packaging with recycled paper.

…and service providers

Retail and catering businesses have long been singled out for their wasteful use of plastic, but they are not the only type of small business with the potential to become plastic free. Music teacher Helen Miller hosted a plastic-free concert for her pupils: not surprisingly, she eliminated disposable cups and cutlery but then went further by wrapping flowers in paper, getting rid of balloons and replacing soap dispensers with traditional soap bars. She has stopped laminating her teaching materials and handing out plastic toys as prizes. Even pens have been scrapped in favour of pencils. Inspired by her example, another teacher stopped giving out sweets packaged in plastic bags and instead created a “pick and mix”, with paper bags, to reward hard working pupils. While small actions like this may not make a vast difference to the global “rivers of waste” they communicate a clear message to the children and their families and show how everyone can make a difference.

Service and office-based businesses may not use much plastic packaging but can encourage staff members to bring packed lunches in reusable boxes or wraps, buy refillable coffee cups and even bring in food to share rather than relying on takeaways. Tea bags contain a small amount of plastic — why not replace them with a big pot of freshly brewed loose tea? A diverse array of businesses have obtained their Champion’s certificate, including solicitors’ offices, estate agents, jewellers, galleries and holiday providers.

Cleaning and hygiene are two areas where there is a lot of scope for any business to reduce plastic. Several suppliers now offer a refill service for cleaning products. Wet wipes, liquid soap, cotton buds and even bin liners can be removed from the washroom. Businesses can also change the kind of promotional items that they give away at exhibitions and conferences, avoiding pens and other small plastic novelties.

The SAS Plastic Free Business Champions initiative is part of the wider Plastic Free Communities campaign, to which 562 communities have already signed up. Each appoints a leader who acts as an influencer and is available to give advice to businesses and members of the public. To find whether your local community is Plastic Free, consult the map at Canary Wharf in London was the first commercial centre to sign up in June 2018 and has been working with local retailers to achieve an impressive reduction in plastic waste. Their return vending machine has recycled 19,000 plastic bottles, and they have even installed a SeaBin which collects 30kg of plastic each month from the nearby waterways.

What about microplastics?

The SAS campaign focuses on packaging and single use items, but these are not the only source of plastic pollution. Microplastics from households create as just much plastic waste (by weight) as large items of packaging. According to a report published by Friends of the Earth last year, the two leading sources of microplastic pollution entering British waters each year are abrasion from tyres and washing of synthetic fibres such as fleeces. While manufacturers bear the primary responsibility for tyre design and performance, businesses can play their part by reducing car travel and learning “eco-driving”, which is kinder to the tyres as well as to the atmosphere. Washing is more difficult to resolve, but there are bags on the market which are supposed to trap some of the fibres. Life cycle analysts will have to weigh up the benefits of using recycled plastic to manufacture fleeces, with the environmental costs of microplastic pollution.

To register as a Plastic Free Business Champion with SAS, go to