Consumer pressure must continue to ensure real industry change

Consumer pressure must continue to ensure real industry change


While consumer pressure for sustainable packaging has been mounting for years, the movement was further ignited in autumn of 2017 when the “Big Blue” episode of the series Blue Planet II was released, showcasing some of the disastrous impacts of marine pollution on wildlife. The public response spawned by the television episode has been so-called the “Blue Planet Effect”, and its proponents often share images of sea life caught up in plastic waste to highlight how ecosystems are being adversely affected by packaging waste.

Now, it appears as though these advocacy efforts may be paying off, as experts within the packaging industry are finally responding to consumer concerns.The theme selected for this year’s Packaging Conference (an event initiated over a decade ago by Plastics Technology, Inc. (PTI), and SBA-CCI, Inc. to enhance collaboration within the industry), held in February, was ‘sustainable solutions’. The event sought to tackle such issues as new recycling technology and the development of sustainable alternative materials to plastic packaging. 

The frequency of discussions on sustainability within the packaging sector have skyrocketed within the past year or so, as it has become the primary issue affecting profitability within the industry. Driving this conversation is consumer frustration with the variability in recyclability of different plastics, leading to uncertainty and confusion. Compounding the issue is the fact that only a small fraction of manufactured plastic is recovered for recycling, with an even smaller proportion actually recycled, after loss to other methods of disposal such as landfills or incineration.

Several corporations have sought to address consumer pressure by announcing their own sustainability targets. These targets, usually focused on the incorporation of recycled materials in packaging and ensuring the sustainable disposal of products, have been adopted by businesses such as Walmart, Danone, Unilever, and Kraft Heinz. While these often-ambitious goals have been praised, limited supply of recycled materials for use in the U.S. may present a barrier to achieving them. At 10% overall, the plastic recovery rate in America would need to be significantly higher to meet the demands of companies committed to using these materials in future manufacturing. To address this issue, barriers such as the high cost of recycling (recycling is twice as expensive as landfill disposal in the USA), variability in collection systems between locales, and consumer misconceptions would all require attention.

To address these and other issues, presenters at the Packaging Conference detailed their innovative technologies and corporate plans. Details are discussed in ‘Solutions for a Circular Plastics Economy’ by Anne Marie Mohan from Packaging World.

The Recycling Partnership, an organization which collaborates with local communities to tackle barriers to recycling, has invested $250 million in partnerships and programs thus far. In a report released last year, the partnership put forth action plans to address the primary challenges facing the current American recycling system. Collaborating with such major organizations as the Coca-Cola Company and Pepsi-Co, The Recycling Partnership spearheaded the Every Bottle Back initiative, meant to guarantee that no plastic bottles are disregarded after their initial use. The plan proposed to ensure the success of the initiative includes a public awareness campaign, updates to package messaging, and a fund for infrastructure improvements for recycling facilities.

Many other conference attendees presented innovative solutions to addressing the plastics problem. These included stakeholders such as Circular Polymers, whose mission is to ensure proper recycling of post-consumer carpet waste; and Anellotech, whose innovative technology seeks to improve sustainability by using trees to create the basic components required for many plastic products.

The conference’s keynote speaker, David Feber of McKinsey, expressed optimism that the industry was changing for the better, despite the very real possibility that many corporate targets will not be met by 2025, as planned. While many promising initiatives were unveiled at the event, consumer pressure must continue in order to ensure real industry change, regardless of promising ideas and supposed commitments.

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Written by Olga Speranskaya