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Will 2019 See the End of Single-Use Plastic?

Single-use plastic – the kind found in water bottles, milk and juice containers, straws and plastic utensils – contributes a great deal to environmental pollution. The bottles themselves are frequently not recycled. Plastics are manufactured using crude oil and natural gas, which increases the carbon footprint. For both these reasons, ending our plastic addiction and reducing single-use plastic is a top environmental sustainability goal.

Eliminating Plastics on Airlines

That goal is moving closer in 2019, if recent announcements from airlines are any gauge. Recently, a Portuguese airline, Hi-Fly, announced that it had flown the first commercial trip without using single-use plastic at all. Given that airlines generally serve in-flight snacks and meals utilizing single-use plastic, it’s an intriguing bit of technology news. This flight is a test by the airline’s business leadership, which hopes to eliminate single-use plastic by the end of the year.

While Hi-Fly is the first to fly without single-use plastic, many other airlines have made considerable efforts to reduce its use. Air New Zealand, for example, has over 24 million plastic items annually, including bags, plates, cups, straws, and toothbrushes. Alaska Airlines has banned plastic straws. Both Delta and American Airlines are following Hi-Fly in trying to eliminate some single-use plastic gear.

Sustainable replacement products can be an entrepreneurial boon.

An Opportunity for Entrepreneurs

All airlines involved in plastic reduction cite their customers as one of the primary drivers of the move to more sustainable products.

The move is also an opportunity for innovators who create and produce more environmentally sustainable products. Hi-Fly, for example, is not eliminating food containers and utensils, but using products made of bamboo and other easily recycled materials. One of its suppliers is Vegware, a company that specializes in making containers from plants, lower carbon, or recycled materials. Plants not only ensure less of a carbon footprint, but also ease of use. They can be discarded along with food, and biodegrade easily, in contrast to plastic.

Aardvark, a venerable straw producer, has seen demand for its paper straws rise 50-fold in the last several years, driven not only by airline demand, but also by municipal bans against plastic straws in cities like Seattle. Fast Company reports that the Indiana-based company is building a new factory to meet demand for its more environmentally sustainable products.

Are the moves by airlines a harbinger of things to come in banning single-use plastic? They almost certainly are, judging by the airlines’ own harkening to consumer requests. More than 125 countries have placed at least some laws around the use of single-use plastic.

The more single-use plastic is replaced with more sustainable products, the more demand business leadership will see for the newer products, and the more incentive they are likely to have to produce them. The more consumers experience the products, the more familiarity they will have, and the more ubiquity the products are likely to have in the marketplace. Ultimately, the move toward reducing or eliminating single-use plastic is the story of a marketplace opening to more innovative ways of providing consumer needs.

Related: Does recycling even work?