In the first of our Q&A series exploring the four Rs of plastics (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), we chat with Martina Schwarz, founder of Blackmarket. With a mission to reduce our reliance on plastic packaging, Martina discusses her recent innovations and her future aspirations, all focused on addressing key challenges in plastic consumption.
Hi Martina! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My background is in brand visual execution, helping companies such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Kellogg’s manage complex projects on a global scale. While working full-time in the packaging design industry, I also completed an MBA, a joint program between Central Saint Martins and Birkbeck, University of London (finished in 2020).
I have now created a product, a refillable liquid handwash called Blackmarket, with the primary ambition of eliminating the need for single-use plastic packaging in the beauty and personal care space.
Where do you see your work in relation to the plastics circular economy?
Well, my career began by working with brands to design packaging that would optimise sales. Great packaging design is an art form and works very much on a subconscious level. We designed for all packaging formats, including plastic, so we were essentially promoting a linear economy.
Luckily, some of these companies now realise there is an urgent need for change. However, industry leaders are still not adapting quickly enough to the climate crisis. This is why I decided to leave the world of large consumer packaged goods. Their supply chains are highly optimised and generally risk-averse, so there is little space for more radical innovation.
Through Blackmarket, my primary ambition is to eliminate the need for single-use plastic packaging in the beauty and personal care space. I make business decisions based on the waste hierarchy. Reduction will always be my top priority, followed by reuse and recycling.
In your opinion, what is the biggest plastics-related challenge we face?
Where do I start?! There are many challenges, but my top two are behavioural and material. The problem with plastics is that they are too good, they are cheap, light, and durable. We need to radically reduce how much plastic we use, but this requires behavioural change. First, by adopting reuse systems, but also by increasing recycling rates. From a materials perspective, we have plenty of plastic polymers, we don’t need. We need to become better at recycling what we already have. There is a huge segmentation in plastic recycling infrastructure, with not all resins accepted across Europe. New materials should focus on plastic alternatives, which are safe, don’t deplete our natural resources, and have a viable end-of-life waste management infrastructure.
A practical example of material challenges is multi-material components. The plastic pumps we use are reusable, but not easily recyclable because they include different materials. There are pumps that claim to be recyclable, but minimum order quantities are beyond what we are able to order at this point and we would need greater reassurance that these components are actually recyclable.
How does your work support householders in addressing these challenges?
My work focuses on making it easier for householders to do the right thing both behaviourally and from a material recycling perspective. Changing behaviours is hard, so we have designed a product to reduce friction for householders, making it easier to adopt pro-environmental behaviours.
The product I developed is a liquid handwash, but it is unique through its delivery method: powder concentrates packed in a dissolvable film. Most personal care products are made of 80% water and because they are liquid, they need to be packaged in a non-porous material such as plastic, glass or aluminium. I realised that once water is removed from the formula we are mostly left with powder based ingredients. A powder can be packaged in different materials. The one I selected is a dissolvable film, which dissolves in contact with warm water. It’s the same material we know from dishwasher or laundry tablets.
Essentially the packaging becomes part of the product itself. The refills are concentrated and therefore much lighter than a traditional liquid handwash. In concrete terms, the refills are 95% lighter than competitors, reducing carbon emissions from transportation.
As for the end-of-life journey, since our handwash doesn’t require single-use plastic packaging, we eliminate the confusion on how to recycle the material. Our refills come in a cardboard box, which is widely recyclable and made from 100% post-consumer waste material. We also include simple and straightforward instructions on how to mix the handwash and how to recycle the packaging.
I hope to develop more personal care products in the future, through the same delivery method, to make it easier for householders to do the right thing. Switching your handwash alone, won’t save the planet, but it is a small step in the right direction!
What are your future goals to rethink ethical consumerism in relation to single-use plastics?
My ambition is to make it easier for consumers to radically reduce unnecessary waste. This might be single-use plastic, but there is a lot of hidden waste we don’t think about. For example, when washing your hands, turning off the water tap has a big impact on how environmentally friendly this activity is. A reusable coffee cup doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reduce our long-haul flights. It’s all connected. Plastic is a serious problem, but ethical consumerism shouldn’t be limited to this polymer. We all need to look at our consumption in a holistic way, becoming more conscientious of our decisions, and how our actions contribute to climate change.
Thank you, Martina, for your thoughts!