Striving for sustainability: is the industry living up to consumer demand?

With a survey finding that 89% of the UK believes that packaging should change to be more sustainable, it would seem that supply would follow demand. Callum Tyndall explores where the industry is doing best and what may be holding sustainability back.

In September, Veolia, a resource management company and founding member of the UK Plastics Pact, revealed a new survey that showed 89% of consumers believed that packaging should be changed to be more sustainable. Of that 89%, 35% of people agreed that packaging should be made from recycled materials, 30% of people thought packaging should be more easily recyclable, and 24% of people thought packaging should be removed altogether. 

The research also revealed that there is still a base level of confusion to be combatted, with many consumers not aware that certain items, such as coffee cups and toothpaste tubes, are commonly recyclable. 

“It’s encouraging that public knowledge on recycling is improving overall, but there is still some way to go," said Veolia chief technology and innovation officer Richard Kirkman. "When we start simplifying packaging and provide clearer labelling, this will enable more sustainable choices at the supermarket and ensure more materials will be collected and accepted at recycling centres. This is the essence of a circular economy and something we should all be striving towards.”

Planning for plastics: meeting consumer demand with action

The consumer demand for manufacturers to increase their sustainability efforts is significant, and is backed by a willingness to financially support the transition. Veolia’s ‘Plan for Plastics’ report, also released in September, found that 93% of consumers think plastic bottles should contain recycled content and 55% of people think the majority of a bottle should be recycled content. Moreover, 51% of consumers surveyed said that they would be willing to pay extra for recycled bottles (an extra 2.5p more on average).

Kirkman said: “The British public have told us they expect plastic bottles to be made of recycled content. We see 50% recycled content for plastic bottles and 30% for plastic packaging as realistic ambitions for every manufacturer to aim for within the next ten years. When more packaging is both recyclable and made from recycled material, it will be the shift needed for recycled plastic to become mainstream.” 

60% of consumers considered packaging companies generally responsible for sustainability and 55% said the same for consumer brands.

Importantly, the surveyed consumers said that they believed the top two parties most responsible for making plastic packaging sustainable were the packaging companies who supply the consumer brands with packaging and the consumer brands who make the product.  Some 30% believed that packaging companies were the most responsible and 27% said that consumer brands were most responsible, while 60% considered packaging companies generally responsible and 55% said the same for consumer brands. There is a clear onus on those involved at the manufacturing stage to work harder to improve the sustainability of their products. 

Stuart Foster, CEO at RECOUP, a charity focused on improving plastics recycling in the UK that worked with Veolia on the report, said: “There is more focus on plastic and sustainability than ever before, and that needs to be matched with action and progress. With circular economy and extended producer responsibility currently under debate, this is the ideal time to acknowledge the key issues and challenge current thinking.”

New innovations for sustainability: creating compostable packaging

If the industry is to truly improve its sustainability, it will need to innovate and produce new forms of packaging designed from the ground up with recyclability and reusability in mind.

Some brands are already beginning to make impressive strides in this area. One of the chief areas of exploration is compostability and the creation of biodegradable packaging materials: we do not necessarily need to find ways in which to reuse packaging if it can be designed to organically breakdown in a timely manner. The potential impact is huge, as exemplified by ready-meal company Snap Kitchen’s switch to compostable packaging for all of its meals. The company had previously been using recyclable plastic trays but with the switch, has cut 500,000lbs from their annual plastic usage.

GlobalData’s Q1 2018 global consumer survey revealed that 45% of UK consumers would buy products more often if they were packaged without any plastic at all, and compostable alternatives may represent one of the best opportunities in this area. Of course the switch to compostable packaging presents challenges; food packaging for example may have to be able to withstand both the cold of fridges/freezers and the heat of ovens/microwaves. But it can make not only a big ecological impact and serve as an impressive selling point to consumers.  

There are several avenues worth considering in regards to compostable packaging. Perhaps the most obvious are cardboard options and the adjacent carton board. Already familiar to consumers, fully enclosed cartons not only offer 100% post-consumer recyclability but can help products to stand out vs shrink-wrapped competition.

Alternatively, manufacturers can consider plant-based materials such as those used by Snap Kitchen or, in a somewhat similar vein, the Golden Compound green material being used by ALPLA for its world-first biodegradable coffee capsule. Comprised of an organically based material using the ground natural fibres from sunflower seed hulls, Golden Compound green has allowed ALPLA to create a capsule in which both the capsule and filter fleece  are completely garden compostable within six months. 

Big business buys in: the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment

On 29 October, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Backed by various bodies, including the companies responsible for 20% of all plastic packaging production worldwide, the commitment includes targets such as eliminating problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and moving from single-use to reuse packaging models, innovating to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025, and circulating the plastic produced, by significantly increasing the amounts of plastics reused or recycled and made into new packaging or products.

The support behind the commitment is massive, both financially - the financial institutions backing it have more than $2.5tn in assets under management, for example - and in terms of symbolic weight. Among the companies represented in the 20% production responsibility are Danone, H&M group, L’Oréal, Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca- Cola Company, and Unilever. Each is likely to pursue slightly different strategies to increase their sustainability but all will be looking to conform to broad goals that should produce a somewhat universal standard for reduced plastic. The efforts of these companies alone could represent a sea-change for the movement. 

In a press release, PepsiCo’s chief scientific officer Dr Mehmood Khan said: "PepsiCo's sustainable plastics vision is to build a PepsiCo where plastics need never become waste. We intend to achieve that vision by reducing, recycling and reusing, and reinventing our plastic packaging – and leading global change through partnerships. Already, PepsiCo is one of the world's largest users of food-grade recycled PET. To further boost recycled content across all plastic packaging and drive progress towards a circular economy for plastics, it is vital to dramatically increase global waste collection and recycling rates through investment in recycling infrastructure and technology."

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