A report launched in January 2017 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) called for concerted global action to reduce the environmental impacts of plastic packaging. It outlines a plan to achieve a more circular economy for plastic packaging through materials innovation, design and improved recovery systems.
The good news is that leading companies are already taking action to reduce packaging waste in collaboration with stakeholders, and achieving results.
THE NEW PLASTICS ECONOMY INITIATIVE
Early last year, the World Economic Forum, the EMF and McKinsey and Company published a report called ‘The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics’. This provided data on global flows of plastics and highlighted packaging as one of the most significant challenges in the transition to a circular economy.
This latest report, the first deliverable under the New Plastics Economy initiative, outlined a clear action plan to address plastic packaging. It included three key transition strategies to achieve its vision of a more sustainable plastics economy.
Without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30 percent of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled.
The action plan calls for a fundamental redesign of packaging materials, formats, delivery mechanisms and after-use systems for four categories of packaging:
- small-format plastic packaging, such as sachets, lids and sweet wrappers,
- multi-material packaging made of several materials stuck together,
- ‘uncommon’ plastics packaging materials with low volume, such as expanded polystyrene (EPS), polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and
- nutrient-contaminated packaging such as fast food packaging.
For at least 20 percent of plastic packaging, reuse provides an economically attractive opportunity.
The report focused on opportunities for the significant proportion of plastic packaging that has potential for reuse, including:
- products that can be delivered through alternative business models; for example, by shipping active ingredients only, with reusable dispensers,
- replacing single-use shopping bags with reusable alternatives, and
- scaling up reusable packaging for business-to-business transactions.
With concerted efforts in design and after-use systems, recycling would be economically attractive for the remaining 50 percent of plastic packaging.
A range of strategies were proposed, including:
- redesign of packaging to improve the quality and economics of recycling,
- harmonised best practices for collection and sorting systems,
- innovation to improve sorting, such as material markers on packaging, and
- deployment of collection and sorting infrastructure where these are not in place.
While the EMF report outlines a clear way forward, it will only be achieved with strong leadership from companies in the packaging supply chain. Global manufacturer Unilever, one of the partners in the New Plastics Economy initiative, announced in January 2017 that all of its plastic packaging would be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
ALREADY IN ACTION
Closer to home, two stewardship case studies from Australia and New Zealand demonstrate the New Plastics Economy in action. Retailer and distributor Foodstuffs is aiming to shift to 100 percent recyclable packaging for all of its own-brand products, and has made significant headway in recent years:
- its EPS seafood box has been replaced with a recyclable cardboard box, and
- a non-recyclable PS meat tray and drip pad have been replaced with a recyclable PET tray.
Design for reuse or recycling is essential for a circular material flow, but this is only effective when there is an easily accessible option for recovery at end of life. The REDcycle soft plastics recycling program provides recycling services for plastic bags and films that are not accepted in most kerbside recycling programs.
Dr Helen Lewis is an environmental consultant specialising in product stewardship and sustainable packaging and the author of the recently released Product Stewardship in Action.
This article also appears in Issue 6 of CWS magazine. Get your free, obligation-free trial of the mag here.
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