This is the second in a six-part series that aims to explore five focus areas for businesses looking to shape their plastic strategy, accelerate change and pursue the necessary scales of innovation and collaboration to address the plastics challenge. You can read the first blog in this series here.
Due to its low cost, versatility, durability and high strength-weight ratio, plastics are so prevalent that imagining a world without it is close to impossible, and perhaps even ill-advised.
A 2016 Trucost study for the American Chemistry Council estimated that moving away from plastics in consumer products and packaging to alternatives would increase environmental costs by 3.8 times. As such, there is – as yet – no consensus among experts as to whether plastic-free packaging is better for the environment.
There is no bad material, just inappropriate application.
While challenging our throwaway culture is critical to improving environmental outcomes, there is widespread concern in the industry that businesses or governments will oversimplify the problem with knee-jerk reactions to replace plastic with other – more unsuitable – materials. Instead of rushing to eliminate all single-use plastics, the first upstream management option available to companies is to map their plastic footprint and make calculated reductions where possible, so as not to compromise the many societal benefits plastic packaging provides, including reducing food waste, contaminants and spoilage. As WRAP’s Peter Skelton puts it, “There is no bad material, just inappropriate application.”
Retailers are in the firing line when it comes to excess packaging, with campaigns calling for plastic-free aisles and consumers naming and shaming supermarkets for ‘ridiculous’ use of plastic packaging – including the infamous plastic-wrapped coconut. While supermarkets typically have little control over most of the packaging in store, major British retailers -including Sainsbury’s and Tesco – have pledged to strip unnecessary plastic from their shelves by 2025. Meanwhile, fellow retailer Morrisons is trialling removing plastic packaging from its fruit and vegetables, with an aim to examine how packaging can be reduced without increasing food waste. In addition to excess plastic use, an investigation by Which? found that almost a third of plastic packaging used by UK supermarkets in private label products was either non-recyclable or not easily recyclable. In response, both retailers and consumer goods companies are focusing efforts on the phase out of such problematic items – including black plastic trays – which are unidentifiable by infrared sensors in sorting facilities.
The challenge is to not light weight to a point where we are in danger of creating food waste.
Plastic reduction, or ‘light weighting,’ presents an opportunity even where the easy actions have already been taken. I spoke with a representative from a beverage company, who stressed that there is usually always a way to remove surplus plastic – you just need to take a closer look. While the bottle and cap are both, understandably, considered fundamental, the company in question found that by making the bottles ribbed, plastic reduction – however small at the individual bottle level – could be achieved, resulting in large savings when applied in volume. Similarly, Marks & Spencer are cutting plastic use in food packaging across more than 140 products in its so-called ‘Project Thin Air,’ repackaging some of the retailers’ best-selling products in smaller, less bulky packaging resulting in a saving of 75 tonnes of packaging each year. Even so, a fine balance needs to be struck. As Kevin Vyse, senior packaging technologist and innovation lead at Marks & Spencer points out, “The challenge is to not light weight to a point where we are in danger of creating food waste.”
While there is a cost associated with packaging changes, reducing plastic and packaging volumes overall, can bring many benefits. It represents not only opportunities to improve brand, and to strengthen relationships with customers, but delivers a potential saving for companies in packaging and logistics costs. However, demonising all plastic packaging is as unnecessary as it is short-sighted, and choosing to eliminate the use of all plastic is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Instead, tackling excessive use can go a long way in meeting waste targets and should be considered as a first step in addressing this complex challenge.
- Map your plastic footprint: Examine the materials manufactured and used across operations (not necessarily just plastics), identifying where reductions can be made.
- Take a closer look: To identify creative solutions and make further savings, look again. Even small reductions can add up when applied in volume.
- Consider the unintended consequences: In most cases, plastic packaging plays a critical role. To avoid any unintended consequences, carefully consider the negative environmental impacts of removing a packaging component.