Can the circular economy help packaging make a comeback?

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Plastic waste is a growing predicament. In a recent ING International Survey, 34% of Europeans said that plastic waste was the biggest environmental problem – ahead of climate change (1). As consumer pressure mounts, government, the packaging industry and consumer brands are working to solve the plastic packaging problem.

Knitting with plastic bags

In July, the European Council decided to introduce a tax of €0.80 per kilogramme on non-recycled plastic waste in the EU, starting in January 2021 (2). Details of how the measure will be implemented in individual EU member states and approval by the European Parliament are still pending, but reception of the decision has not been all positive. Some industry groups say that the tax will obstruct progress towards circularity if it is not reinvested in recycling infrastructure. Others predict that the additional cost will decrease the economic viability of non-recycled plastic (3). But the tax reflects the existing trend towards sustainable packaging, which dissenting voices are unlikely to impede. Manufacturers and brands are already working to make plastic packaging sustainable while also maintaining economic feasibility.

Not such a vicious circle?

A circular economy for plastics, where materials are recycled and re-used, is an important part of the sustainability solution. But circularity does not come quickly and requires leadership, or at the very least collaboration among peers.

In 2018, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the UN Environment Programme, launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which sets targets to address plastic waste and pollution (4). Since then, about 60% of the brands, retailers and packaging producers in the signatory group that use problematic plastics have eliminated them or have concrete plans to phase them out.

Why is the use of recycled plastics so challenging? One reason is that it is complicated: it depends on the entire plastics value chain – not just the commitment of one organisation. “If we want to make more use of recycled plastic, then we have to make sure that we first of all get a grip on plastic waste,” says Joost van Dun, ING’s Circular Economy Lead. That process of “getting a grip” must start at the very beginning. The circular economy requires products to be designed to be recycled in the first place – for example by using fewer types of plastic in one item – so that they can be dismantled easily. “We think all players in the plastic value chain see the necessity to continue their efforts on the reduction of overall use of plastic, design for recycling, increased collection of plastic waste, better sorting and new recycling technologies to increase the use of recycled plastic,” says van Dun.  “This might be driven by reputational pressure and/or regulatory pressure,” van Dun adds.

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A woamn buying unpackaged food

Brands take a position

Like most other consumer goods companies, European dairy cooperative Arla uses significant amounts of packaging. The challenge, says Hanne Søndergaard, its Executive VP of Sustainability and CMO, is to foster a circular economy for that packaging. “A lot of our agenda is about making our packaging recyclable,” she says. “But it’s also about moving away from virgin materials and using recycled or bio-based source material for our packaging.”

Arla is evidence that, with or without legislative intervention such as the plastics tax, manufacturers and brand owners are seeking to move towards sustainability and circularity. Like Arla, they have more work to do, but they also need consumers to be willing partners. International brewer HEINEKEN, for instance, recognises that its moves to circularity require consumers to be on board. “We are considering increasing our capacity to work with returnable bottles,” says Jan Kempers, Program Manager for Sustainable Development at HEINEKEN Netherlands Supply. “Which is a well-known and more or less traditional offering for our domestic market.” He adds that a returnable bottle has a significantly lower carbon footprint than a one-way bottle.

What if plastic packaging never became waste? That is the ideal scenario of another drinks giant. Chris Daly, VP Sustainability at PepsiCo Europe, says that because much of PepsiCo’s plastic usage for its beverage bottles is PET, which contains higher-value resin than other plastics and is highly recyclable, it is economically viable to have a completely circular system. Three of PepsiCo’s beverage brands, Tropicana, Naked Smoothies and Lipton Ice Tea, switched to 100% recycled PET (rPET) in a number of European markets this year. But Daly admits that this system has not yet been implemented. “It’s imperfect,” he says. “There are many breakages in the system.” One of these “breakages” is in communication: how do consumers get their packaging back into the circular system? “Consumers want to be sustainable, but it's not always easy for them to do,” says Daly. “Sometimes, the label doesn't give them enough information on what they need to do with it after use.”

The food and drink industry is making positive noises about tackling plastic waste, but to turn these ideas into reality it needs to make it easy for consumers to play their part. That is where consumer education and engagement come in. Combining enthusiastic, innovative brands with willing consumers and top-down initiatives such as the EU tax places a circular economy for plastics within reach – and with it, an image overhaul for this maligned material.

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Sources:

  1. ingwb.com
  2. consilium.europa.eu
  3. foodpackagingforum.org
  4. ellenmacarthurfoundation.org