My masterplan to replace plastics worldwide

EY's Entrepreneur of the Year explains how to eliminate plastic
David MacDonald
David MacDonald

David MacDonald is owner and CEO of Cullen Eco-Friendly Packaging, EY Entrepreneur of the Year Transformational Leader and Wired Trailblazer of the Year 2022. His company Cullen Eco-Friendly Packaging is on track to produce one billion sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging a year and exports to 34 countries globally.


Much of the world is starting to open its eyes to the fact that our reliance on single-use plastics can't be sustained. Recent environmental reports reveal that a staggering 171 trillion pieces of plastic waste are floating around in our oceans, which is 151 trillion more than reports from 2005. We need to change our relationship with plastic trash quickly and at a meaningful scale. For if our reliance on plastic continues at this rate, by 2050, we will have more plastic rubbish in our oceans than fish.

What if we replaced plastic with materials that were just as effective but actually good for the environment? That’s where people like me and other innovators come in. There isn’t yet a single way to diffuse the plastic timebomb, but there is hope that we can stop the clock from ticking quickly and then eventually reduce the issue significantly.

More than a third of all plastics used, approximately 40 percent, is for packaging. Most of this, 91 percent, ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste. Clearly, plastic packaging is a huge problem that recycling is failing to solve. So addressing the packaging material itself is a huge  opportunity to innovate and create truly meaningful change.

Governments across the world are well aware of this and are increasingly promoting greener packaging alternatives, such as the UK’s recent Extended Producer Responsibility scheme, which aims to stop the flow of hard-to-recycle plastics. As a result, food and household goods companies and retailers are being compelled to respond with greater urgency.

To relieve the huge sustainability pressure experienced by retailers like M&S, Tesco and Sainsburys, as well as producers like Unilever and Mondolez, packaging innovators like Cullen Eco-Friendly Packaging can step up and play a crucial role. Here’s how.

1. Learn what can be replaced

A problem many retailers face, and food producers for that matter, is the knowledge gap. They know they have to solve the plastic packaging problem, but few know where to start. Only recently have some created a Head of Sustainability role in order to help Chief Procurement Officers who have typically been used to working with a plastic-dominated supply chain.

Indeed, I’ve seen and heard from retailers that simply didn’t know that most of the plastic on shelves can indeed be replaced with alternatives like moulded fibre. The paper-based material is already in use, in other packaging; Cullen’s versions are already in all major supermarkets with shelf ready corrugated packaging and protective moulded fibre produce packaging. Today it is also present in 98% of NHS hospitals, most high street coffee shop chains and other outlets as well as protecting a vast array of items in transit like drinks, paint, industrial goods and much more.

So moulded fibre is already everywhere, having replaced plastic packaging elsewhere, but not every Head of Sustainability or Head of Procurement knows what other plastic packaging can be replaced with this sustainable material.

In my experience, the great news is that retailers are open to learning what plastics they can now replace. Indeed, once a retailer knows there’s an alternative, they want to go for it. It might sound simplistic but a great way to educate supermarket buyers looking for plastic replacements is to simply walk around their aisles and warehouses and point out what can be made using moulded fibre.

You’d be amazed at how eye opening this exercise is. Sustainability and procurement people seem visibly relieved and full of hope when you show them how much can actually be made in moulded fibre instead of plastic, particularly when you tell them the paper-based material is completely recyclable and compostable and even enriches the soil, unlike plastic.

2. Get the supply chain on board

Retailers like M&S and brand owners like Unilever have real power over their supply chains, but when it comes to sustainability, instead of imposing change on the supply chain, they are seeking to work collaboratively, being methodical and cooperative to get the right solutions in place at the right time and cost. Despite the urgency, getting the switchover right is important to make sustainable alternatives stick long term and not fall at the first hurdle.

In practice, the best way to do this is for retailers to share sustainability plans with the supply chain and with manufacturers like us at Cullen Eco-Friendly Packaging.  Collectively we can innovate and support the adoption of sustainable solutions.

Cullen can replace most plastic packaging within one month. That includes our design team redesigning the packaging and building the tooling and it helps that our engineers build our own machines and tooling in-house. So guiding clients through the transition to plastic free is every day business for us. 

This type of collaboration between retailers, manufacturers and the supply chain is critically important, but it’s also sensible, straightforward and easier than you might think.

3. Innovation must fill the pipeline of alternatives

Innovation will be at the forefront of the mission to reduce plastic consumption. Entrepreneurs with a vision for massive change, the capability to redesign packaging, and who have in-house engineers and designers can make that vision a reality.

The UK is at the forefront of plastic replacement innovation. Cullen is one of the biggest, having produced over 1.2 billion sustainable products and packaging in the last two years, supplying 34 countries worldwide. We’re particularly proud of our latest innovation, The Fibre Bottle. It’s a patented replacement for single use plastic bottles and pouches containing dry goods as varied as horticultural products, vitamins, spices, pet foods and household cleaning products. The scale is mission-critical, and the Cullen Fibre Bottle can be made in mass volumes, up to 300 million pieces every year.  Given it is 100% plastic free, that’s a huge amount of plastic removed from our shelves right now. 

4. Manufacturing at scale

As the oceans alone have more than 170 trillion pieces of plastic pollution, the biodegradable solution we choose needs to combat the damage that’s been done, and this will involve scale. That’s why I have made it our goal at Cullen Eco-friendly packaging to reach production of one billion plastic free pieces this year. 

And for us this is certainly doable as we have currently made 1.2 billion pieces of sustainable compostable packaging in the past two years. We have expanded our facilities and team, and built new machines to increase our capacity to make more. So that’s good news for the environment.

The state of the planet is quite daunting, but instead of letting it get the better of us, we need to seek solutions that will help us to put our wrongs right. On our end, my team and I are working tirelessly to provide shoppers, retailers, and manufacturers with sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging. I’m hopeful that by quickly integrating these efforts with other environmental initiatives, we aim to shift the balance in our favour and make a positive impact.

Written by
David MacDonald
Written by
October 3, 2023