The food and beverage sector uses more single use plastic than any other industry
Plastic has long been the world's favourite packaging material. Lightweight, flexible and inexpensive, plastic promotes shelf life and emits less CO2 than typical alternatives during production.
Policymakers in the EU and other parts of the world are busy developing policies to combat the ever-increasing amount of plastic waste generated and leaked into the environment. Despite this, plastic waste management costs are still not borne by the brands creating the waste. While plastic remains a cheap packaging material, there is a serious lack of funding available to build and scale the necessary global recycling infrastructure. The problem is not plastic so much as its management: our current system does not adequately account for plastic's recovery.
Mismanaged plastic waste often ends up in the ocean where it endangers nature and wildlife
Recycling alone won't do the trick: while recycling is a fundamental stepping stone towards solving the plastic crisis, recycled plastic is often not suitable for its original use. Food safety legislation, for example, requires high-quality, food-grade plastic – a standard that recycled plastic often does not fulfil.
Plastic is not infinitely recyclable since the material becomes toxic after a limited number of cycles. The main material that currently meets regulations on food-grade recycled content is recycled PET which is made out of returnable bottles, often through a deposit return scheme (DRS). This is possible since the DRS systems allow the plastic to be collected separately in a concentrated stream, then crushed, cleaned and processed into new, high-quality packaging. The infrastructure that would enable other plastic types to become fully circular is simply not available in most parts of the world.
The risks and negative impacts associated with plastic are powerful incentives for taking a
holistic approach, including using less plastic packaging and recycled materials in those plastics that are necessary.
Industries need to (re)design their products so they are fit for the systems in which they operate. To reduce and improve plastic packaging, businesses need to create a strategy with measurable goals at a company level. They need to review their packaging on a case-by-case basis and be able to justify their choice of packaging both to their customers and health-and-safety regulators.
No single solution is up to the task of solving the plastic problem by itself. A combination of interlinked actions is required:
Reduce the total amount of plastic packaging by eliminating packaging components or lightweighting your packaging.
Use only recyclable materials in your packaging – and understand its actual fate at its end-of-life.
Use maximum recycled content in your operations as well as in your packaging.
Refill and reusable packaging options are becoming more widely available – the only truly circular solution
Use bio-based and/or biodegradable plastics, but beware of greenwashing!
Plastic won't disappear anytime soon – avoiding plastics altogether is unlikely. Even after taking the measures outlined above, a small amount of plastics will probably remain and become waste.
What you can do despite this is
invest in plastic collection and recycling projects: through so-called "plastic credits", companies can support environmental clean-up and build the infrastructure for the waste they put into the environment. By doing this, funds are moved to where they are needed most while companies can claim "zero waste to nature" or "all plastics repurposed". More on this concept here.
You can also
invest in educating your consumers about the right way to recycle, and motivate them to sort their waste correctly. Use marketing channels and product packaging to do this: ensure the recycling process is smooth and that the recycled content feedstock is high quality.
Finally, it is important to
build accountability inside and outside your company. Disclose your material footprint yearly and report on your progress publicly in your annual statement and on other reporting channels. Joining global initiatives, such as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, can help you stay on top of your plastics mission and communicate this mission to the public. There are a lot of other regional initiatives to look at, for instance the Plastics Pact which is in numerous countries.
The plastic crisis affects both the planet and its people. What is needed are circular solutions and a holistic approach. By taking a stand as a contributor to the plastic problem – scrutinising your operations, product packaging and the actual end-of-life fate of your plastics – your company can make a difference while saving costs, improving your consumer relationships and building customer loyalty.
Are you interested in building a circular plastic/materials strategy with concrete actions and targets?