PLASTICS PACKAGE: Slow on the uptake?

Foodservice and hospitality businesses continue to shy away from a high profile global plastics commitment. David Burrows reports.

Take-away food chains, hotels and airlines have been urged to join a global initiative to reduce plastic waste and pollution.

More than 350 organisations, including 150 businesses, have signed up to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). Signatories have all committed to a future in which “plastics never become waste”. As such they will apply reuse models where relevant, reduce the need for single-use packaging and make all their plastic packaging 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable.

Footprint reported poor engagement with the foodservice and hospitality sector when the high profile initiative was launched in November 2018. “We are definitely open for these companies to sign the global commitment, but so far none of them have done so I’m afraid,” said an EMF spokeswoman at the time.

In the latest update, published this month, there has been little movement. Major high street chains and contract catering companies remain conspicuous by their absence: there is no McDonald’s, no Compass, no Sodexo, no Accor, no Whitbread and no Starbucks. The pub chains have shied away from putting pen to paper, too.

Some firms have made their own commitments, and the EMF’s approach isn’t without its critics. However, for businesses that have come to rely on disposable packaging, can they afford not to be involved in something that spans the entire supply chain and promises to produce a rich source of best practice and new trials?

“We call on hospitality and foodservice companies such as take-away food chains, hotels, and airlines to join the Global Commitment and embark on a journey towards a circular economy for plastics,” the report reads. “These industries represent significant volumes of single-use plastic packaging and are currently underrepresented in the Global Commitment.”

Six of the top 10 fast moving consumer goods firms are in there (Nestlé, Pepsico, Unilever, the Coca-Cola Company, L’Oréal, and Mars Incorporated), as well as five of the top 15 retailers (Walmart Inc., Schwarz Group, Carrefour, Target, and Ahold Delhaize) and four of the top 10 plastic packaging producers (Amcor, Sealed Air Corporation, ALPLA Group, and Aptargroup Inc.).

In the latest report, 35 companies publicly disclosed their annual volumes of plastic packaging production and use. Together they use eight million tonnes of annual plastic packaging. The group includes Carrefour, Colgate Palmolive, Danone, Mars, Nestlé, SC Johnson, The Coca-Cola Company and Unilever – many of them publishing this information for the first time. In addition, 40 brands and retailers will pilot or expand reuse and refill schemes.

“The targets and action plans set out in this report are a significant step forward compared with the pace of change of past decades,” said New Plastics Economy lead Sander Defruyt. “However, they are still far from truly matching the scale of the problem, particularly when it comes to the elimination of unnecessary items and innovation towards reuse models.”

Of course, setting targets and making commitments is one thing; how about achieving them? This is a question that many of these well-known brands will now be grappling with. “Proclamations by brands and converters touting commitment to 100% recyclable materials or packaging being 100% recycled dominate industry headlines,” explained Mintel global packaging director David Luttenberger. “But the reality that few of them have yet to fully consider is how, where, and who will be supplying and recycling these materials.”

Luttenberger also said that low availability of high-quality recycled plastic and concerns over food safety are hampering the use of recycled material in food and drink. Inconvenience and confusion surrounding recycling are a barrier for others, he added, in a new report detailing the future of the global packaging industry.

Meanwhile, new opportunities including plastic-free aisles, package-free stores and alternative pack materials have been welcomed by consumers and campaigners, but are not without their own challenges. “While plastic-free aisles reflect consumer exhaustion with excess plastic packaging, in reality, few would want to lose the convenience and benefits plastic packaging can bring,” Luttenberger said. “And while the term 'plastic-free' may appear to be a simple one, there is no universal definition; even plastic-free packaging often includes plant-based plastics, showing the lack of clarity in the plastic-free call.”

Tackling plastic waste and pollution is tricky, especially for businesses that have been able to expand and meet consumer demand thanks to cheap, disposable packaging. But the longer the sector ignores the issue, the more expensive and painful the solutions will become.

EMF’s plastic economy update, with the latest commitments from every signatory, is available here.

Mintel’s report is available here.

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