In The Loop: Circular Innovation and Plastic Waste in the Creative Industries

Person holding and looking at a piece of material

The UK’s creative industries are a major industrial sector, employing more than two million people and growing at roughly twice the rate of the economy as a whole. Given this significant environmental footprint, there are increasing concerns as to how the industry is contributing to global problems such as plastic waste.

JB hosted an event with the UK Circular Plastics Network at the Arboretum club which explored innovations taking place across the sector, and the opportunities for creative businesses to move towards eliminating single-use plastic use, and instead incorporating circular economy design into their strategies and processes.

Following an introduction from Sally Beken, Manager of the UK Circular Plastics Network, the afternoon kicked off with a panel talk featuring Vikki Chapman of Live Nation, Claire Mead of Makerversity, Alexandra Garcia of Globechain, Brad Owen of Horniman Museum and chair, Erica Purvis, followed by a series of breakout sessions led by Seacourt Printing, First Mile and Material Driven.

Panel Discussion:

Vikki Chapman of Live Nation gave a lightning talk on circular music festivals, focusing on their ambitious sustainability charter. Their key single-use plastic principles:

  • Prioritise reuse over single use.
  • Prioritise renewable over finite resources
  • Use certified compostable products
  • Use at least 30% recycled (rPET) content where alternatives are not available.
  • Desposit return scheme for cups on all festival sites
  • Plastic from their sites is recycled into Co-operative’s own-brand bottled water bottles which have a min % recycled content

Claire Mead shared details of Makerversity’s approach within their membership community of makers and creative businesses based at Somerset House. Claire discussed:

  • The different approaches to eliminate and reduce plastic across the Makerversity programme, ensuring this is waste free wherever possible – ie avoiding flyers / paper / foam board; upcycling exhibition plinths; borrowing manikins.
  • The Materiom project – which provided open data on how to make materials that nourish local economies and ecologies – ie bio-plastics and composites you can make from the food waste in your bin, then dissolve in your sink once used.
  • The city co-labs programme – which involved hacks to make public city spaces more sustainable – in particular the hydro commons project repurposing rainwater for mini urban farms, to deliver with as little waste as possible
  • Interwoven – a weekend festival exploring the future of textile design in creating sustainable change within the fashion industry and beyond.

Alexandra Garcia of Globechain introduced their reuse marketplace that connects companies with charities, SMEs and individuals to redistribute unneeded items while diverting waste from landfill. Alexandra discussed:

  • How Globechain want to lead a new generation of businesses being ‘commercial with a conscience’, helping enable corporates to achieve their sustainability goals at the same time as creating social value
  • Their success working with London Waste Recycling Board to reuse and repair items usually destined for landfill
  • Some of the unusual plastic (and other) items that have recently been redistributed, and others that are looking for a home – working mobile airport platforms or a huge mountain of fertile soil, anyone?!

Brad Owen of Horniman Museum and Gardens, talked about successul circular sustainability initiatives that have been implemented across their South London cultural site, including:

  • Majority of single-use plastics replaced by plant based vegware in 2018, and now investigating options to process all vegware on site via an industrial scale composter
  • Installing a drinking fountain and moving from bottled water to canned, removing 24,000 single use plastic bottles per year
  • Setting up an cross-organisational Sustainability Group with a new Manifesto – a public commitment to change, with ambition for impact on a broad scale
  • Reduced use of mains water on site; recycling Aquarium water and introducing rainwater harvesting techniques on the gardens
  • PVC marketing banners are being recycled into tote bags to be sold in the gift shop
  • Additional focus on programming and public engagement in this area too including recent exhibitions from Claire Morgan, a bottle garden for Chelsea Fringe, and a Beat Plastic Pollution display in the Aquarium


Josie from recycling company First Mile

Josie shared examples of tackling hard to recycle materials, processed through their Recycling Lab and RecycleBox schemes, encouraging ease of recycling for unusual and complex items.

Opportunities identified:

  • Cafe Nero coffee cups – collected via amnesty bins where they are recycled into reusable material streams by being shredded and mixed with paper working with James Cropper’s mill. They have also created a very useful map identifying where you can recycle your coffee cup across London
  • Taking used coffee, turning it into biologs that can be used like conventional logs on fireplaces
  • Currently looking at how to take the oil from the coffee and turn it into diesel for buses or for use in cosmetic products
  • Being aware of the different quantities of waste at different times of year e.g. this festive time of year there are lots of corks – which can be turned into yoga mats if recovered

Challenges identified:

  • Mixed materials can be difficult or impossible to separate – textiles are the best example of this – there’s currently no viable solutions and recycling of textiles is in its infancy, with labelling often incorrect
  • Plant based packaging and food is mixed contamination – these items need to be separated. We need more plants that can cope with mixed plant based packaging and food waste
  • Logistical challenges of getting items into the right geographical locations/operational/collections
  • Challenge of incentivising customers to return items

Solutions identified:

  • Designing for end of life is a key solution so that waste streams can be properly separated. e.g. coffee pods and aluminium
  • Assessing different options depending on the level of control you have and size of event e.g. plastic cups might be a good option for a small event where you can take the cups away yourself
  • Materials sent for anaerobic digestion where energy goes to the national grid. Wooden cutlery is often incinerated
  • E-waste incentives are used e.g. £10 to take away e-waste due to residual value of materials. This is increasingly important due to the limited amount of valuable metals left such as aluminium

Gareth and Paul from Seacourt – Planet Positive Printers

Seacourt shared examples of how they’ve set up their award-winning circular business model and provided tips for where we can take action within our organisations, designing waste out of supply chains. Participants were able to review alternatives to vinyl printing and find out about waterless, chemical free and zero-waste printing solutions.

Key successes:

  • All large format posters, banners and displays can be recycled or repurposed – these are collected from clients and ensured are sent to recycling places
  • At all National Trust sites across the UK they have replaced all outdoor plastic banners for banners printed in polyester that can be recycled easier


  • The overall focus to reduce the need to print in the first place. As environmentally friendly printing is currently more expensive, an approach of very careful consideration about what needs to be printed is key. As the market changes, those costs will come down ensuring economies of scale across the industry
  • Some organisations mentioned that main barriers are cost, lack of knowledge about which companies have better environmental criterias, with the issue that many people require printing with no central policy

Adele from design agency MaterialDriven

Adele shared her extensive knowledge of cutting-edge and sustainable materials across a large, global network of material manufacturers and makers. She hosted a show and tell, sharing examples of bioplastics and materials drawing value from waste, recycling and substituting traditional plastics, with experience in working with biological and grown materials. Participants were able to share some of the concerns surrounding plastics use today and find out what steps they might take to change materials use and help to eliminate single-use plastic.

Check out this useful PDF summarising trends from their work

Funding and Development Opportunities:

Smart and Sustainable Plastic Packaging Fund

This challenge will establish the UK as a leading innovator in smart and sustainable plastic packaging for consumer products, delivering cleaner growth across the supply chain, aiming for a dramatic reduction in plastic waste entering the environment by 2025.

See all other funds available for the cultural sector in this Useful PDF from Tom Campbell of Knowledge Transfer Network’s presentation.

Above – image credit @ James Allen