Blog 07.11.18

Packaging: “We just haven’t got a clue what to do”

SustainPack, the Barcelona packaging sustainability conference, left me in no doubt that the packaging industry is in crisis – and in the words of glam-rock legends The Sweet, “we just haven’t got a clue what to do”. The industry, especially the plastic sector is encircled by problems:

The revelation

The first rumblings came in February 2015, when Science Magazine published a paper by Jenna Jambeck et al, “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean”. Prior to this nobody I knew, could explain how so much plastic was swirling around in the oceans – or if they could, they kept quiet about it. Jambeck and her team identified specific Asian rivers as the source of most of the world’s ocean plastic. It didn’t take long to wonder how a poor country like Indonesia could conceivably be the world’s second biggest ocean plastic polluter.

As usual the problem was revealed to be us in the West. Turns out when we ‘recycle’ our Coke Zero bottle, we actually mean we stick it on a boat full of mixed plastic trash to Asia. And to hell with it, let them comb through the mountain of single use plastic waste we all generate in a typical year of guilt free consumption. Surely there are offshore elves grateful to sift through our trash to farm what meagre scraps they may. This is 21st century imperialism.

Boats tend to dock near rivers. Transport is expensive. So the waste gets crudely sorted in primitive sites right by the river. What to do with the left-over stuff? You guessed it. This is the system behind a big lie told to our consumers, who thought at least they were doing one good deed when they drop the ubiquitous single-use plastic pack into the recycling. China finally got sick of being the dumping ground for our poorly sorted packaging waste, and legislated to end the trade on 31st December 2017. According to an excellent in depth investigation by the UK Financial Times, China and Hong Kong went from accepting 60% of G7 countries’ waste plastic in the first half of 2017, to just 10% in the same period in 2018.

Right now mountains of the dirty stuff are piling up in warehouses while local governments scramble for somewhere to process it. Having promised their electorate they were recycling, they can hardly send it to landfill without risk of criticism – and landfill is expensive anyway. The problem is that neither Europe nor the U.S. has anything like the capacity and logistics infrastructure to recycle their own waste material. So they are looking for poorer Asian countries to fill the void left by China, according to the FT including, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. This is hardly a reassuring option from an environmental perspective.

The outrage

Of course the readership of Science Magazine is limited, and probably nobody would know about this fiasco if David Attenborough had not been so alarmed by the quantity of plastic his film crews saw in the oceans while making the BBC’s Blue Planet II. The renowned naturalist and filmmaker had previously avoided addressing environmental issues, but became so concerned about the damage to marine life and the eco-system, that he broke with policy and made a strong appeal to solve the problem. His images of sea life trapped, suffocated and poisoned by ocean plastic shocked the public, changing the perception of plastic packaging fundamentally. I’m struggling to think of a material that is this universally unpopular. Environmentalists hate coal – but it’s a long time since anyone personally bought some and unpacked it on their kitchen counter.

Plastic packaging is personal. It protects and presents most of our favorite things. Now we look at it in our recycling bin, and wonder, which whale’s stomach it will end up inside.

The media were rightly outraged, and none does outrage quite as well at the UK tabloid papers. In the summer of 2018, supermarkets were vilified for their excess packaging and failure to ensure it was being recycled. Under intense pressure, some quickly caved in, hurriedly announcing recyclable packaging targets and banning black plastic trays. Panic measures rarely make for good strategy.

The regulator

Enter the EU, the custodian of the consumption habits of half a billion people in 28 countries thought it should rush through a directive on packaging before its next round of elections in May 2019. For two decades the EU has claimed to be solving the packaging recycling issue with their Extended Producer Responsibility policy, that transfers the cost from local authority to producer. Although this has stimulated more recycling infrastructure than say in the U.S., a significant proportion of waste is still put on the boat. An immediate ban on coffee stirrers and straws looks more like PR than Producer Responsibility. As the French say “quand les poules aurons des dents” (when chicken grow teeth).

The EU has been caught with its eco-pants down. For decades leading European companies and many of its regions and cities have kept a packaging secret, “pssst when we say recycle, we mean boat to China”. Of course, there are exceptions and quite a lot of recovered packaging is recycled and burned within the EU. But by no means all of it. According to the Financial Times, Germany is the world’s third biggest exporter of waste plastic (after the U.S. and Japan).

NGOs of all complexions have dived-in to stir the gyre. Most influential is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has done an impressive job of promoting a ‘circular economy’ – where materials remain in use indefinitely, returning each cycle into a product at least as valuable as the last. One corporate presenter at SustainPac even gave MacArthur equal status with the EU in a slide on influencers.

In partnership with packaging NGOs the organization has signed up leading consumer brands to set targets for redesigning their packaging and facilitating the recovery and reuse of the materials. If there is a bright spot in this sorry tale, this may be it. But treat with caution. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation receives most of its funding from corporations. They are masters of the dark art of ‘stakeholder sedation’. It goes like this: sign up to long term goals, pay the fees, populate the committees, control the agenda. This is why Greenpeace doesn’t accept corporate funding.

MacArthur describes the commitments of her plastic partner corporations as a “line in the sand”. These are the commitments:

  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse packaging models
  • Innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be easily and safely reused, recycled, or composted by 2025
  • Circulate the plastic produced, by significantly increasing the amounts of plastics reused or recycled and made into new packaging or products

In fact almost anything anyone has to say about the future of plastic packaging is ‘by 2025’. ‘Kicking the can down the road’? Sorry couldn’t resist it. Less collaborative NGOs adopted the well-versed name and shame tactic, publishing a ranking of the world’s biggest ocean polluters. Not a place you want your brand to appear.

Here at the Barcelona conference, the packaging industry is visibly buckling under the stress. The non-plastic materials lobby are rushing around telling everyone who’ll listen that the issue is just a plastic problem. The paper and metal packaging makers are reveling in plastic’s discomfort. But their customers, the major brands and supermarkets, most definitely are not.

They need to find solutions, quickly, and an inter-materials PR war is the last thing they want to spend their time on. They need plastic packaging – we all do. Paper, card, and metal cans all bring issues of their own. Chicken fillets in a paper bag anyone?

The solution

Nobody knows. Not the EU, not the corporations and not even the NGOs, although they usually think they do. The EU regulation will lean towards the ‘Producer Responsibility’ levy (euphemism for tax). New taxes are a non-starter in the U.S. where a different mechanism will have to be devised to fund a national reprocessing capability.

Key to circular economics, is the size of the market for recycled material. More expensive to produce than virgin plastic, and less desirable as a material – contamination is an issue – recycled materials need an eco-boost. This will push and pull the unloved material into our lives: cash from the producer responsibility levy to fund the processing, and more cash from brands compelled by legislation to incorporate recycled material in their packs. It might be called producer responsibility, but don’t be fooled, it’s the consumer who will pay.

There are big opportunities for the material and design innovators to invent new ways of using recycled materials in packaging, without compromising product protection. Other circular packaging R&D areas are:

  • Single polymer packaging design (don’t mix plastic types)
  • Cleaner, purer recycled materials
  • Design innovation to incorporate recycled materials safely in food and personal products
  • Bio-plastics from crops and organic wastes
  • Bio-degradable plastics
  • Ocean and beach recovered plastic

If you think all of this is a mess, you’re right. But change often is messy, and we should take heart that Jambeck and Attenborough have brought this out in the open. That of course is a long way from reaching a solution as Hansen and Gore will attest.


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Simon Propper

CEO and co-founder

Buckman, New Balance, Trex, Utz

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