Ellen MacArthur Foundation Progress Report tracks limited progress in plastic pollution fight
11 Nov 2020 --- Global companies using plastics packaging are demonstrating “limited progress” increasing the recyclability of plastics packaging and reducing single-use packaging. This is according to the latest Ellen MacArthur Foundation Global Commitment 2020 Progress Report, based on 2019 data.
However, the F&B sector has made “significant advancements” in incorporating more recycled content in plastics packaging and phasing out cradle-to-grave packaging materials. Signatories are averaging 6.2 percent recycled plastic content.
The Global Commitment Progress Report is the second in a series of annual reports tracking signatory progress toward company 2025 sustainability targets, with the overall aim to eradicate plastic waste at source and establish a plastics circular economy.
The signatories account for more than an estimated 20 percent of the plastics packaging market.
A “gigantic” problem
PackagingInsights speaks with Sander Defruyt, leader of the New Plastic Economy initiative.
“We’re very much aware that all these companies are part of the problem today. But equally, we truly believe that these companies need to become part of the solution because they have the size, power and responsibility to solve this issue.”
Defruyt highlights that although the initial findings appear promising, it is crucial to keep the scale of the plastic pollution problem in mind. “Yes, progress is being made, but much more needs to be done. The problem is absolutely gigantic.”
Signatory packaging producers include Berry Global, Constantia Flexibles, Amcor, Mondi and Tetra Pak, to name just a handful of the more than 250 businesses involved.
Empowering consumer choice
Some companies have taken big steps forward tackling plastic pollution, while others have shown little to no progress against quantitative targets, flags the report.
Seventeen percent of packaging producers, packaging goods and retail signatories have eliminated or never had the most problematic packaging categories in their portfolios in 2019.
While just over half (56 percent) of businesses planned reuse pilots, only 1.9 percent actually have a reusable plastic packaging share. Sixty-five percent of signatories made 100 percent of their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable in 2019.
Defruyt says regardless of the path companies active throughout the packaging value chain choose, the goal is to eliminate “bad choices” for consumers.
“There’s a lot of talk about consumer behavior, but in the end, businesses decide what they put on the market. We’re working toward a system where everything these businesses put on the market are actually good solutions.”
“Now, the vast majority of [supermarket] packaging is basically not recyclable in the first place. That’s not something you as a consumer can really change directly.”
Internal and external drivers
Consumer demand is certainly a force to be reckoned with in incentivizing businesses to prioritize environmental protection. But there is also pressure coming from company employees.
Some packaging producers shared with New Plastics Economy that candidates would often bring up the topic of packaging commitments in recruitment interviews.
From that angle, companies have a means of attracting passionate talent to their industry, but only if goals are credibly being pursued and targets met.
This year’s report is based on data from 2019, meaning that next year’s report will be better suited to analyze the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on industry’s environmental targets. Defruyt expects the data to look “completely different.”
Demand fluctuations in essential versus non-essential food items, especially when global lockdown restrictions were first imposed, are bound to shift volumes. Meanwhile, there has been “rocketing demand” for takeaway food containers and bubble wrap – most of it not recyclable – and the halting or reversal of policies aimed at reducing single-use plastic products.
Where sales have massively dropped, there is “slightly more worry” about R&D projects going on hold or scrapped altogether due to insufficient funds. Reuse models, for example, rely on long-term trials.
“The pandemic has further exposed the drawbacks of our linear economy, emphasizing the urgent need to rethink how we produce, use, and reuse plastics,” the report’s foreword reads.
“A circular economy not only presents the opportunity to tackle plastic pollution at its source, but also to build a more resilient and regenerative economy, helping us restore the environment, create jobs, and benefit society.”
The road to 2025
In the face of the pandemic’s financial headwinds, stakeholders are cognizant the pandemic will not change the fact there is still a sizable plastic waste management issue to be solved.
It’s “possible” the signatories will achieve their 2025 targets, but only if they implement fundamental change, such as reuse models that redefine how products can be delivered to consumers.
“The solution always wanted to be fancy, always wanted to be solved yesterday, but it’s never fast enough,” concludes Defruyt.
By Anni Schleicher
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