Brands stuck in plastic ‘comfort zone’

The latest Plastic Pact results show targets being missed, terrible news on reuse and more than a third of packaging still unrecyclable. David Burrows reports.

Last week the Ellen MacArthur Foundation managed to spin some decent news from its global commitment on plastic packaging. This week it was the turn of Wrap to announce “strong progress” against the targets set out in the UK equivalent – the Plastics Pact. Here are the key takeaways.

Recycled content hits 18%. This is the standout good news from the 2020 results (the 2025 target is 30%). Wrap’s lead on the pact, Helen Bird, admitted she was worried that the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent drop in oil prices would have resulted in many brands scurrying back to cheaper virgin plastic – but that didn’t happen. “It has been really positive,” she told Footprint. The introduction of the plastics tax in April next year will undoubtedly have focused minds. 

Brand performance is unclear. What is harder to tell from Wrap’s update is which companies are making most progress on recycled content, or indeed anything else. EMF now publishes detailed plastic footprints for many of its signatories, but Wrap’s approach is to look at the “overarching trends”. This offers many brands a safety net and, so critics argue, an excuse to do very little. Indeed, it’s likely that the push on recycled content is being led by the non-food brands with those in food still struggling. There are, for example, very few options available for food grade recycled content in flexible packaging.

Flexible remains a foe. Bags and flexibles make up a fifth of consumer plastic packaging but only 6% is collected for recycling. “… it continues to be our number one priority,” notes Wrap. The report spotlights some of the innovation led by signatories, such as pouches made from one polymer, and the investment being made by companies in new plants to recycle flexible plastics. More supermarkets have rolled out in-store collection points, Bird explained, but “we need it to be collected from people’s homes in the future”. 

Recyclability stuck on 64%. Flexibles are the reason that the amount of primary packaging that’s recyclable or reusable remains stuck on 64% (93% of transit packaging is recyclable or reusable). Bird says there is “a lot of activity still happening” but food brands in particular are starting to struggle now they have picked some of the low-hanging fruit. 

Government dithering doesn’t help. UK processing of plastics has grown 50% in the past five years – it’s a “really good story”,” said Bird, but another 550,000 tonnes of capacity is needed if 70% of plastic packaging is going to be effectively recycled or composted here. The hold-up in government policies like streamlined household waste collections, deposit return schemes (DRS) and extended producer responsibility has Wrap worried. Bird said a lot of companies are waiting for clarity from government on how consistent collections are going to work, as well as the timing for a (continually delayed) DRS and EPR before they start making any commitments about investments. “As the doors are closing to us on the export market, there's a concern – are we going to be able to build enough facilities quickly enough to be able to recycle all of the stuff that we're collecting?”

2020 target missed. The government has finally started to crack on with more market restrictions for certain plastic items (the new consultation will be the subject of next week’s Footprint analysis). In June 2019, pact members committed to eliminate many of the items targeted. Eight “problematic” or “unnecessary” plastic items (cutlery, plates and bowls, straws and straws with cartons, cotton buds, drinks stirrers, polystyrene, oxo-degradables and PVC) should have disappeared by the end of 2020. But not all of them have: the report notes a 42% reduction in these plastic items since 2018. A footnote explains: “It will not be possible to confirm the extent to which the eight items were eliminated by the end of 2020 until next year.” Polystyrene is the big headache: use of the packaging has fallen just 3% since 2018. 

Reduction in packaging weight. Wrap instead chose to focus on the fact that the weight of single-use consumer plastic packaging placed on the market by its members has fallen by around 10%. Unlike EMF, Wrap doesn’t have the level of detail from businesses to understand exactly what’s driving that reduction – for example whether brands are simply switching to other single-use materials. Replacing shrink-wrap in multipacks with cardboard is an example that clearly grates with Bird – “that’s not something that we would advocate”. The mantra of ‘if the packaging isn’t necessary then don’t use it’ is one that she still has to reiterate to brands “over and over again”. 

Things are about to get uncomfortable. Supermarkets love multipacks though because their shoppers do – and they are more likely to buy them if the beans or tomatoes come wrapped together. “We need to do a bit of retraining with people,” Bird said, admitting that she does “lose some sympathy” with brands “because we should be doing what’s right. It’s not about removing choice but perhaps we need to make some sensible decisions on how those products actually get to people.” 

Rock bottom on reuse. The results of real-life reuse and refill trials carried out under the pact are “extremely exciting”, said Wrap CEO Marcus Gover. However, the report reveals that just 1,700 tonnes of the 910,000 of primary plastic packaging used by pact members was reusable – that’s 0.2%. Schemes that involve shoppers bringing their own containers are not captured in this data but the finding raises big questions about the intentions of the big brands to shake up their single-use models. “We just need so many more trials and we need to just try and share the learnings and just keep going,” said Bird. “Because until we get the learnings and really understand how it is that we can scale it up, it's going be really difficult.”

Whether Wrap has the clout to drive change and hold businesses to account is debatable. The organisation has found it relatively easy to encourage engagement on plastic given the issue’s high profile. (At least among retailers and manufacturers. Only three foodservice brands are involved: “We’d love to have more of them on board [but] they've just got so many other big problems to be thinking about,” Bird said). But as former Wrap CEO Liz Goodwin told me earlier this year, there comes a point when the “comfort zone needs to be broken”. Wrap and its members should realise that this latest report suggests we have probably reached that point. 

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