A turtle tangled in a plastic bag in the popular BBC TV documentary series Blue Planet (BBC, 11/2017) brought home the enormity of the plastic packaging problem for many consumers.
Some eight million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year, and if we continue on the current trajectory there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the sea by 2050 (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).
So where is all this plastic in the ocean coming from? Plastic has been a success story as a cheap, versatile and durable material. But only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, while the rest of the 78 million tonnes produced annually is incinerated, ends up in landfill, or leaks into the environment (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017), harming marine ecosystems, and potentially human health.
What can be done about this? Companies currently rely on plastics to protect and transport their products – and some of the cost savings that companies make by using plastics in this way are passed on to the consumer. That means they have to find alternatives through better design or innovative materials or look for ‘end of life’ solutions that capture the value of plastics in recycling.
Retailers, leading consumer goods brands, waste management companies, chemicals companies and policymakers all have a role to play. Representatives from across the plastics value chain discussed how businesses could tackle plastics pollution at a recent conference held in Amsterdam. Taking part in these discussions made me acutely aware of the complexity of the current system.
In what was labelled "the angry triangle", consumer goods companies argued they could only change their packaging when the recycling infrastructure was available, while recycling and waste management companies said investment in new infrastructure was only viable if products were simpler. Ideally, they wanted to be involved in product design.
To move beyond this chicken and egg situation a regulatory push is required - yet municipal collection systems are inherently complicated. In England for example, what is recycled can differ from one street to the next depending on which local council makes the rules. Meanwhile, regulators are calling on industry to lead the way.
Manufacturers, waste management companies and regulators will have to work together to create a functioning market for recycled materials.
There are several steps that companies can take to address the issue of plastic packaging. Firstly, they should build their understanding by auditing their plastics use, then set targets to reduce unnecessary single-use plastics. Next, they can invest in new delivery systems that focus on the reduction and the reuse of plastics.
Although recycling technology is evolving rapidly, the use of multiple different polymers, especially in more complex flexible packaging, remains a challenge. Companies also have to weigh up the unintended consequences of switching from plastic to other packaging types, including bio-based materials, which may increase their carbon footprint due to the extra weight. Yet addressing plastics pollution can be an opportunity for companies to future-proof against impending regulation and another way for them to connect with their customers.
In my next blog, I will look at how investors can play a role in driving this change.