What does Plastic-Free mean? Everything you need to know

What is meant by Plastic-free? Let's explore the definition, strategies and benefits of the Plastic-free model to shed light on the limits of Plastic recycling and substitution

Michela Gallo

Green Copywriter

cosa significa plastic-free

Plastic-free definition

The term Plastic-free literally means “free from Plastic”, and represents a commitment to a more correct handling of this material.

Plastic-free does not mean a Plastic-free world. Rather, it means replacing or eliminating Plastic where its use is disposable and also are there reusable alternatives on the market that ensure hygiene, preservation and integrity.

Contrary to a critical view that appears reductive, being Plastic-free does not, therefore, imply the quest for a completely Plastic-free world. This would be impractical at present, considering the key role that Plastics play in crucial sectors such as pharmaceuticals and food.

It is important to deepen and contextualise criticism of the Plastic-free movement. Often, objections do not take into account the complexity of the problem, limiting themselves to generalisations that do not contribute to a constructive discussion.

A misinterpretation of the Plastic-free concept can lead to counterproductive business choices, which can even exacerbate the problem. The demonisation of Plastic as a material regardless is an example of this.

Instead, being Plastic-free means making conscious choices from a Circular Economy perspective, opting for reusable and sustainable solutions as much as possible.

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Let us explore the topic together in this article, therefore, in a critical and detailed manner, overcoming clichés and simplifications.

The truth about Plastic and its impact

Paul John Flory, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1974, described Plastics as the material that “nature forgot to invent”, due to its characteristics of lightness, unbreakability, impermeability, durability and cost-effectiveness.

These characteristics have made Plastic an ideal substitute for many natural materials. Growing economic prosperity, bringing with it new needs for hygiene and food preservation, but not only, has made Plastic the most produced material of the 20th century.

The use of Plastics in food packaging, for example, has enabled the extension of food preservation times and thus the reduction of food waste. Similarly, its applications in health care and logistics have led to improvements in sanitation and transport systems.

In several sectors, Plastic still proves to be irreplaceable today due to the absence of alternative materials offering equivalent performance, especially in terms of flexibility, hygiene and competitive costs. The exemplary case is that of medical devices: replacement by other materials is not considered a viable solution.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that many non-disposable Plastic items, such as office supplies or furniture, have a relatively lower environmental impact due to their long life and multiple uses.

For this reason, Plastic-free’s efforts are primarily aimed at disposables.

Plastic-free Regulations

Directive (EU) 2019/904 on the reduction of the impact of certain Plastic products on the environment, also known as Single Use Plastic Directive (SUP) , introduces restrictions on certain products into European legislation. Among the products identified, an interesting case is that of straws, for which reusable alternatives were evaluated. Specific exemptions for special needs, such as when they are part of a medical device, were in any case considered in EU Directive 2019/904.

It is in this context that the Plastic-free vision is formed, whereby Plastic is valorised, without a superficial vision of total elimination of the material.

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Plastic-free benefits

Adopting a Plastic-free approach offers numerous benefits for both the environment and society as a whole.

Plastic is a material derived from non-renewable sources such as oil, and its biodegradation can take centuries, given its durability and resistance. This implies that the use of disposable Plastic, used for short periods of time, is not only economically unsustainable but also has serious environmental impacts.

A further fate of Plastics is incineration, used to produce energy through secondary solid fuel (CSS). This practice, despite the energy input, is a waste of valuable resources and contributes to emissions into the atmosphere.

Plastic-free companies strategies

Companies that have chosen or are embarking on a Plastic-free path adopt strategies aimed at reducing or eliminating the use of Plastic, preferring reusable solutions or, as a secondary alternative, single-use materials in line with the European Directive 2019/904.

The trend towards Plastic reduction has gained popularity globally, with an increasing number of companies, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world and more recently also in Italy, implementing projects aimed at this.

Common strategies include replacing disposable Plastic items with biodegradable and compostable alternatives, encouraging the use of reusable aluminium or steel water bottles, and other best practices as they become available.

However, the ‘sustainability’ of compostable solutions remains a matter of debate.

A report by the Minderoo Foundation on the Index of Plastic Waste Producers highlights that, although Disposable Plastics represent an alternative to fossil-based Plastics, their production has a significant impact in terms of CO2 emissions. In addition, the paper points out the problems related to the disposal of these Disposable Plastics, which are not effectively integrated into composting processes.

In this context, a critical and informed approach based on scientific evidence and recommendations from authoritative bodies such as the United Nations, Universities and Research Institutions is essential to avoid misinterpretations and unintentionally harmful consequences for the environment.

The promotion of reuse and the use of recycled Plastics in industries are challenged by cost and quality. Policies, such as in Italy the CONAI contribution and the Plastic tax, try to balance these differences by incentivising the use of recycled materials through disincentive mechanisms for virgin and tax incentives for recycled.

Plastic recycling limits

Despite the efforts made in terms of separate collection, it is important to recognise that only a fraction of polymers is actually recyclable. The difference between separate collection as a waste separation practice and actual recycling is significant.

Obstacles such as contamination by food residues, the addition of additives and dyes that improve the characteristics of the Plastic, severely limit the recycling possibilities. In addition, this process requires a considerable consumption of energy and resources.

Recyclable Plastics face a further limitation: they cannot be recycled indefinitely. Unlike materials such as aluminium and glass, Plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times (generally up to 3 or 4 times), losing weight, volume and quality with each cycle.

As a result, recycled Plastics are often not suitable for the production of new objects with specific strength or aesthetic characteristics. A striking example is PET, considered among the most recyclable materials, which is frequently processed into synthetic fabrics instead of new bottles.

Attempts to produce bottles exclusively from recycled Plastic revealed the fragility of the final product, leading to the use of a mix of virgin and recycled Plastic, and, in many cases, a preference for the use of virgin raw material.

The reality of recycling processes, which are often difficult and inefficient, clashes with the need to find sustainable alternatives.

In this context, the opportunity to valorise Plastic waste fits in strategically.  

Exploring Plastic-free certifications: what’s available for companies

The certifications are a fundamental recognition for companies and organisations that are actively committed to reducing the use of Plastic in their production processes, packaging or day-to-day operations.

These types of certifications are based on strict criteria that evaluate the actual decrease in the use of single-use Plastics and the promotion of sustainable and reusable alternatives.

The aim is to stimulate a change towards more environmentally friendly practices, while offering consumers the opportunity to recognise and choose environmentally friendly products and services. Certified companies stand out on the market, attracting customers who are increasingly aware of the ecological impact of their purchases.

Companies of all sizes and sectors can aspire to these awards by implementing policies aimed at minimising the use of Plastic and adopting more sustainable alternatives.

Crucial in this context is to pay special attention to truly effective practices in order to distinguish them from greenwashing.

Certifications such as Control Union’s Plastic Free Certification allow companies to concretely demonstrate their commitment to reducing single-use Plastics and adopting more sustainable production practices.

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Best and worst practices: the British case of Chepstow

In June 2018, Chepstow, a town on the Welsh coast, made headlines by becoming the first town in the UK to receive Plastic-free status. Conferring this accolade was the marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage, which has turned its attention to Plastic pollution in the oceans in recent years.

This story began with a formal request from Chepstow Town Hall to the charity to publicly support its initiative to withdraw all single-use Plastic items from all public places in the town. The project was named “Plastic-free Market“.

The endorsement of Surfers Against Sewage gave impetus to the initiative, but a curious episode turned the spotlight on the town: to announce the project, a Plastic banner was placed at the entrance of the town. Criticism and sarcastic comments were not long in coming, leading the municipality to replace the banner with one made of canvas, obtained from recycled materials. However, this material proved unsuitable for use in rainy weather, a frequent weather condition in Wales.

This episode, despite its ironies and contradictions, underlines a broader reflection on the use of Plastic: replacing it with other materials is not always feasible or sustainable. The case of the banner, in fact, demonstrates how Plastic, although environmentally critical when misused, can offer unique advantages for certain applications due to its durability and resistance to the elements.

The story remains emblematic: the banner is not a disposable object and in this case, Plastic offers characteristics that other materials do not.

Towards a Plastic-free future

The main objective of Plastic-free is, therefore, the more conscious and sustainable use of already available resources.

Developing an alternative material on an industrial scale would take time that is not compatible with the environmental urgencies of our planet. Each new production involves the use of raw materials and energy, raising questions about the environmental impact of seemingly innovative solutions such as bioplastics and plant-based Plastics.

In this context, intercepting and valorising Plastic production waste is a key practice.

This approach not only minimises the volume of waste, but also opens up a model of Industrial Symbiosis, where waste from one process can become a resource for another.

The valorisation of waste encourages the transition to a Circular Economy, demonstrating that it is possible to reconcile production needs with environmental protection through innovative solutions that promote reuse and recycling.

Michela Gallo

Green Copywriter

Good Communication and the Circular Economy share an essence based on optimisation and efficiency, to reach the right people and resources, in the right way, at the right time.