To battle the threat of plastic

9 April 2018

Packaging took centre stage at this year’s Davos conference, with a particular focus on the threat posed by plastic to marine environments. Packaging & Converting Intelligence reports on the ways in which major companies are committing to the circular economy in order to help clean up the planet.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman summed up the issue succinctly in Davos. “In just half a century, plastic has moved from being a symbol of modern domestic bliss to a magnet for derogatory adjectives,” he said. “As eight million tons of it enters the ocean each year, there is an urgent demand to reconcile plastic’s undeniable functionality within a system that can work for the long term, protect the environment and avoid the loss of valuable material.

“Packaging is plastic’s single biggest application globally. It affects our lives every day. Over the past 50 years, we have moved from reusable solutions to disposable, single-use items, but the recycling system hasn’t kept pace. Today, just 2% of the plastic on the market is turned into new packaging.”

So what can governments and industry do to address this critical issue? In the first weeks of 2018, the EU Commission announced its plastics strategy, France made the ambitious commitment to recycle 100% of all plastics by 2025 and the UK announced a 25-year environment plan with a major focus on moving away from throwaway plastics. Dozens of other regulatory measures have been introduced by cities, countries and international institutions across the world over the past few months.

Industrial action

Industry is also taking action. Unilever has pledged to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. “The consumer goods industry must go further and faster to address the challenge of single-use plastics, by leading a transition away from the linear take-make-dispose model of consumption, to one that is truly circular by design,” said Polman.

Polman states that there are four key actions that companies can take to encourage the systemic change required and accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Firstly, to invest in innovation towards new delivery models that promote reuse. Secondly, to commit to 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Thirdly, they should set stretching targets for using post-consumer recycled content for a global plastics protocol, setting common agreed definitions and industry standards on what materials are put into the marketplace to ensure packaging is compatible with existing and cost-effective recycling infrastructures.

And finally, Polman says companies must engage positively in policy discussions with governments on the need for improvements to waste management infrastructure, including putting extended producer-responsibility schemes into place.

Polman said, “Addressing the issue of ocean plastic is a shared responsibility; everyone in the value chain must work together. However, there is no doubt that the response from the consumer goods industry will be among the most critical in determining the speed at which positive change takes place.”

Alongside its commitment to 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025, Unilever pledged to source 25% of its resin from post-consumer recycled content by 2025 and to publish its full plastics palette before 2020.

Lot of bottle

Alongside Unilever, ten other major global companies from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – with a combined responsibility of more than 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging a year – announced their intention to achieve 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

Amcor was the first company to announce its plans. “Amcor is proud to be the first global packaging company pledging to develop all its packaging to be recyclable or reusable by 2025, significantly increasing its use of recycled material, and helping drive consistently greater recycling of packaging around the world,” said CEO Ron Delia. “We recognise this is a challenge and look forward to meeting it head on.”

Not many people realise that black plastic is tough to recycle. Becoming black-plastic-free across all our own-label products is the right thing to do.

– Tor Harris, Waitrose

Evian’s global brand director, Patricia Oliva, revealed that the brand would make all of its plastic bottles from 100% recycled material by 2025. “We plan to achieve this through pioneering partnerships to redesign its packaging, accelerate recycling initiatives and clean up plastic waste from nature,” she said. “Evian is committed to co-building the circular economy of packaging and will launch its ambitious broader plans in the coming months.”

Fisk Johnson, CEO of Ecover owner SC Johnson, said, “All of Ecover’s packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. As part of its ambition to rethink the way it uses plastic, the company has set itself the bold ambition to use 100% recycled plastic in all bottles by 2020; introduce recycled content into its caps from 2018 and trial new, non-plastic, fully biodegradable materials that are still recyclable by 2020.

“As a first step, in January 2018, it will launch a new 100% recycled and 100% recyclable washing-up liquid bottle in Europe.”

Jean-Paul Agon, chairman and CEO of L’Oréal, said that all plastic packaging used by the cosmetics company would be rechargeable, refillable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. “This is in line with, and a continuation of, L’Oréal’s efforts over the past years working towards the continuous improvement of the environmental and social impact of 100% of its new products by 2020, as part of its ’Sharing Beauty With All’ sustainability programme,” he said. Barry Parkin, health and wellness, and chief sustainability, officer at Mars, confirmed that the confectionery giant, would “continue to work towards 100% recyclability of our packaging by 2025”, pointing out that science-based packaging innovation was one way to reduce the company’s carbon footprint in line with its overall sustainability goals.

Waitrose has announced that it aims to remove all black plastic used in its meat, fish, fruit and vegetable products by the end of 2018. The black plastic used for food such as ready meals and puddings cannot be recycled, as lasers used by waste processors cannot sense the colour effectively, meaning they are not identified for recycling.

Tor Harris, head of sustainability and responsible sourcing at the supermarket chain, said tackling the use of plastics across the business was “a key priority” and that the company had committed that all its packaging would be widely recycled, reusable or home compostable by 2025.

‘‘Not many people realise that black plastic is tough to recycle,” Harris noted. “As a retailer dedicated to reducing the impact of plastic packaging on the environment, becoming black-plastic-free across all our own-label products is the right thing to do.’’

Community benefits

Steve Rowe, chief executive of Marks & Spencer, confirmed that all the company’s plastic packaging in the UK would be 100% recyclable, as well as “widely recycled” in the UK by 2022. “Marks & Spencer will work to eliminate packaging that strays into the environment particularly oceans – and actively phase out packaging parts that can’t be reused or recycled,” he said. “It will introduce products with reclaimed social plastics as a component, providing positive social benefit to the communities from which the materials are sourced. In addition, the company will assess the feasibility for all its plastic packaging to be made from one polymer group by 2025, to reduce consumer confusion and improve recycling.”

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi announced the drinks company’s ambition to make all its packaging recyclable, compostable or biodegradable; increase recycled materials in its plastic packaging; reduce packaging’s carbon impact and, in partnership with the PepsiCo Foundation, work to increase recycling rates by 2025.

Bea Perez, chief public affairs, communications and sustainability officer at Coca-Cola, said, “The Coca- Cola Company has announced a bold, ambitious goal to help collect and recycle 100% of the packaging it sells by 2030. This is supported by two key goals – to continue towards making all of its consumer packaging 100% recyclable by 2025, and to have 50% recycled content in its packaging by 2030. Coca-Cola’s plan, called ‘World Without Waste’, will work with a number of partners to achieve this global goal for packaging that includes design, collection and partnering – and encompasses the whole life of the package.”

Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart declared that 100% of the company’s private-brand packaging would be recyclable by 2025, and that additional plans were in place to reduce the environmental and social impacts of private and national-brand packaging.

“Outside of our organisation, we are encouraging our suppliers to participate in Project Gigaton, by setting goals to improve packaging optimisation, recyclability, and the use of recycled and sustainably sourced materials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “The Walmart Foundation supports the Closed Loop Fund to help improve access to recycling and strengthen the recycling infrastructure.”

Reinhard Schneider, CEO of Werner & Mertz, explained that, while the packaging used by the company was already 100% recyclable, it had “further committed to use 100% recycled plastic in at least 70 million bottles each year as of 2017, corresponding to 65% of our entire annual bottle volume, aiming to go up to 100% for all its consumer goods packaging by 2025.”

He said, “In line with the group’s integrally sustainable philosophy, the packaging caps and lids will be made of used plastic, while labels, printing inks and adhesives will be designed in such a way that the quality of the recyclates will be improved.”

Current thinking

Separately, in a commitment to combating climate change, Budweiser announced at Davos that its products would feature a symbol letting consumers know that its beer had been brewed using 100% renewable electricity. The symbol will appear on every Budweiser brewed in the US from spring 2018, using electricity sourced from a wind farm in Oklahoma through an agreement with Enel Green Power.

The brewer’s global vice-president, Brian Perkins, said, “We know that climate change is an important issue for the consumer. However, they aren’t sure how their everyday actions can make a difference. The renewable electricity symbol enables consumers to make smarter everyday choices that can have a positive, meaningful impact.”

Polman said, “In order to kick the plastics system into the 21st century, we need even more action by key actors within the system. Businesses, in particular, could do more to accelerate the shift towards a circular economy for plastics, keeping them as a valuable material in the economy and out of the ocean.

“Investing in innovative ways of delivering products to people without generating plastics waste would provide a $10-billion global opportunity, for example, and companies need to design their packaging to be easy to dispose of after use. Terms such as ‘bioplastic’ or ‘recyclable’ can create confusion, and, need to be simplified and harmonised.

We live in a world in which 90 billion tons of resources are extracted every year to meet society’s demands.

– Antonia Gawel, World Economic Forum

“Such a protocol could also help the industry align on material choices, guaranteeing that only compatible materials that can either be recycled, reused or safely biodegraded make the final list. Finally, a constructive dialogue between industry and policymakers is a prerequisite to progress.”

The final thoughts on Davos were from Antonia Gawel, head of the World Economic Forum’s circular economy initiative. “We live in a world in which 90 billion tons of resources are extracted every year to meet society’s demands, and that number is expected to more than double by 2050,” she said. “The sheer scale of natural resource extraction is cause for concern, but the additional challenge is that today, what we take from the environment is not equivalent to what we put back in – we mix, melt, mould and burn materials in such a way that natural systems can’t reabsorb them.

“As a result, resources are ending up as waste and pollution that harm humans and nature alike. We see plastics accumulating in the world’s oceans, electronic waste polluting the air and soil, and the burning of fossil fuels creating blankets of smog in the world’s most populous cities.

“The resulting diseases caused by this and other forms of pollution were responsible for an estimated nine million premature deaths in 2015 – a shocking 16% of all deaths worldwide. Our natural systems are fractured.”

The way forward

While this is a bleak picture, Gawel was able to point to some positive steps taken by innovators, policy makers and business leaders at Davos to help get the circular economy off the ground.

Highlights included the fourth Annual Circulars Awards, which celebrated innovators and champions from around the world, from Banyon Nation, which is using plastic waste as a resource for businesses in India, to AMP Robotics, which is using artificial intelligence and robotics to reduce the cost of recycling.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation also announced the winner of the Plastics Innovation Prize, which challenged designers, entrepreneurs, academics and scientists to work to eliminate plastics packaging waste.

Philips CEO Frans van Houten, in accepting his award for circular economy leadership, cautioned that while there was cause to celebrate the incredible innovations that are emerging, there was still a long way to go. Less than a tenth of the resources in today’s economy are cycled back into use, as highlighted in the Circular Economy Gap report.

Electronics were under scrutiny, with the number of devices worldwide expected to grow from 10 billion in 2015 to as many as 50 billion by 2020 as the world becomes more connected; this makes electronics the world’s largest-growing waste stream.

On the flipside, it also represents an untapped opportunity – the value of gold, silver, aluminium and other valuable materials that lie idle within electronic devices is estimated at $55 billion. The question is how to collect, process, and reintegrate these into production processes safely and economically.

Given the scale of the threat posed by plastic pollution to the world’s oceans, the redesign of packaging is critical, as is the development of effective solutions to the growing challenge of uncollected and unprocessed plastic waste, particularly in developing economies.

There has never been a more pressing need to design innovative ways to finance waste management infrastructure, scale up community engagement in collection efforts, introduce policy incentives and use innovative technology.

Bea Perez, chief public affairs, communications and sustainability officer at Coca-Cola.
Plastic waste in the ocean has a massive negative impact on the environment, as well as on human health.

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