By 2050, there could be as much plastic in the sea, by weight, as fish

By 2050, there could be as much plastic in the sea, by weight, as fish

The way plastic is used to package food and drinks has shot up the consumer agenda in recent months and, in response, there has been a flurry of food companies announcing pledges on their use of packaging. The pressure is on to act. However, David Burrows argues businesses should be mindful before leaping on the latest developments in packaging while NGOs are arguing some of the companies' commitments are far from ambitious.

The final episode of the BBC's Blue Planet showed birds feeding plastic debris to their chicks. The images brought shame and sadness, anger and activism. Almost overnight plastic became the pariah of the materials world. "When I mention I'm involved with plastics for a living, I sometimes get a look along the lines of 'you killed a baby whale'," Dr Sally Beken, a polymer scientist at the UK's Knowledge Transfer Network, noted in a blog recently.

The impact on the food sector has also been profound. At supermarket checkouts in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Italy, shoppers have been ripping off "excessive packaging" in a wave of "plastic attacks". Policymakers have been launching plans to appease this plastiphobia – a Plastics Strategy emerged from Brussels in January and, yesterday (28 May), the European Commission announced a raft of measures to reduce single-use plastics and encourage the development and use of "cleaner" alternatives.

Regulatory change will not happen overnight, so industry has already made its own moves. Mars, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever and Danone have all signed a pledge led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) to use 100% recyclable, compostable or reusable plastic packaging by 2025 – or sooner. They are also part of the UK Plastics Pact, which adds three further commitments to the EMF pledge. By 2025 they need to: ensure 70% of plastic packaging is recycled or composted; use at least 30% recycled materials across all their plastic packaging; and eliminate "problematic or unnecessary" single-use packaging.

Other firms have launched their own targets. UK frozen food retailer Iceland has promised to eliminate single-use plastic packaging on its own brand products by 2023, whilst discount chain Lidl is working towards a 20% reduction in plastic packaging by 2022. Upmarket UK grocer Marks and Spencer wants to streamline the polymers it uses to reduce confusion and increase recycling, while manufacturer 2 Sisters Food Group says 90% of all the plastic components in its branded products will be recyclable within the next two years. 

"Retailers and manufacturers have known about some of the problems with packaging for a long time. But Blue Planet raised concerns to a level where they went 'oh shit'."

"Retailers and manufacturers have known about some of the problems with packaging for a long time," explains one senior source who did not want to be named. "But Blue Planet raised concerns to a level where they went 'oh shit'."

The pledges keep coming thick and fast. Anything to do with plastic packaging is almost guaranteed to deliver national media coverage. However, six months on from Blue Planet, perhaps it is time to take a breath and ask: in the rush to be seen to be doing something (anything?), have food companies set realistic targets? Or have ambiguous commitments been rushed through that will ultimately prove costly to achieve and deliver limited environmental benefits?

There is no doubt something has to be done to tackle plastic pollution. Production of plastics globally has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years, according to a report by EMF in 2016, and consumption is expected to "surge" to 1.12bn tonnes by 2050. At that point there could be as much plastic in the sea, by weight, as fish. Indeed, EMF estimates that 32% of plastic packaging "leaks" into the environment and, 40 years on from the launch of first universal recycling symbol, just 14% of plastic packaging is recycled. That figure surprised many in the industry, says Sander Defruyt, who leads the new plastics economy initiative at the think tank. "They thought it was bad, but not that low."

In Europe, figures released in March by trade body PlasticsEurope showed recycling of plastic packaging was 40.9% in 2016, but things have begun to stagnate (it was 39.5% in 2014). In Europe, 19 countries had rates in excess of 35%, but only two – Germany and the Czech Republic – managed above 50%.

The target for 2025 is 55%, though this is under review as part of the EU Plastics Strategy. Plastic can bring myriad benefits, the commission noted, but "too often the way plastics are currently produced, used and discarded fail to capture the economic benefits of a more circular approach and harms the environment". 

The EU's Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive will also be reviewed as part of this process. Within the rules there is already an essential requirement for packaging to be designed, produced and commercialised in such a way to permit its reuse or recovery and minimise its impact on the environment. "That's a very powerful statement," says Marcus Gover, CEO at Wrap, the UK resources charity leading the Plastics Pact. "If we did that, certainly nothing would end up in the ocean."

It has not turned out that way, and brands can certainly expect the laws to be tightened. Responsibility for the packaging they put onto the market will also be extended – the European Commission's announcement this month included proposals for producers of packaging to "help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up" and "given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives" for single-use plastics like crisp packets, sweet wrappers and a host of other food containers.

Some have already begun to try and make it easier to "close the loop" on their plastic packaging. Nestlé is looking at changing the colours of its plastic packaging to make it easier to recycle "from the outset", says Duncan Pollard, the company's sustainability expert. His team will also be exploring whether to switch to recycle 'mono-materials' or simple packaging types such as paper, and "simplify the number and type of layers used in multilayer plastic packaging". 

Layers of different materials fused together (think paper cups with plastic liners) can deliver lightweight protection, but are a nightmare for recyclers; plans to reduce the number of polymers on the market are welcomed by waste contractors. But talk about switching between materials and they get twitchy. "That makes things more difficult for us … it can mean more materials in the waste stream," says Stuart Hayward-Higham, technical development director at waste-management group Suez. 

Commitments have been flying around this year and the packaging sector has reacted quickly – manufacturers of aluminium, paper and bio-based packaging are lining up to help businesses kick their plastic habit. There are is interesting innovation in the pipeline or on the market – laser branding for fresh fruit and vegetables; packaging made from wood and plant waste that can fed to bacteria and turned back into plastic again; and food sachets and packets made of seaweed-based materials that can be dissolved and eaten.

This year's wave of commitments from individual companies has made waste collectors like Suez's Hayward-Higham nervous, too. At the moment, anything that has plastic does not look good, he explains, which has left many struggling to interpret what "good" looks like. "I'm not sure that some of the companies understand the full value chain impacts of their decisions," he says.  

Those with a vested interest in plastic have, naturally, hit back. "Plastic beats most materials hands down on carbon [emissions]," says Kenton Robbins MD at PFF Packaging, one of the UK's largest independent food packaging manufacturers. He also says finding an alternative to plastic that can withstand everything from bashing to extreme temperatures and is recyclable and safe will be "very, very hard".

Compostable packaging back in vogue

"We have a difficult material to recycle so everyone thinks 'let's make it compostable'"

Still, heads have been turned, especially towards the potential benefits of compostable materials. This "often happens", explains Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at Eunomia, the environmental consultancy that has been working with the European Commission on its Plastics Strategy. "We have a difficult material to recycle so everyone thinks 'let's make it compostable'. We've been approached by a host of companies and public sector organisations that are about to move to biodegradable polymer packaging and straws without any real idea really of the pros and cons."

A few years back the food sector got excited about compostable packaging for food, but the infrastructure to deal with it effectively was not there. They quickly realised paying a premium for something that would end up in landfill (where it can be "worse" than conventional plastic, according to Hilton) or an incinerator, was pointless.

Consumers also found the whole thing confusing – and still do. In a survey of 1,700 German citizens published at the 11st European Bioplastics Conference in Berlin, almost half (43%) had heard of the term 'bioplastics', but 84% of those had no idea what it meant.

Even the managing director at European Bioplastics, which represents the sector, admits that explaining what bioplastics are is far from straightforward. "Biobased plastics are not necessarily biodegradable and compostable plastics are not necessarily biobased," said Hasso von Pogrell at an event in Brussels organised by the European Policy Centre in February.

The ambiguity has presented an opportunity for greenwashing, and the European Commission thinks it is time things were cleared up. To avoid "false environmental claims" and reduce confusion, Brussels will publish harmonised rules for labelling "compostable" or "biodegradable" plastics. A life-cycle assessment will also be developed to ensure biobased plastics result in "genuine environmental benefits compared to the non-renewable alternatives".

Coca-Cola and Danone are among the businesses showing heightened interest in the technology – both have invested in research by Avantium, a chemical company that is developing PEF (polyethylene furanoate) as a bio-based alternative to polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

PEF is the "first example of a polymer that's better than the petroleum-based ones", said Tom van Aken, CEO at Avantium, at a forum for the Bio-Based Industries in Brussels in December. It is also said to have improved barrier properties (reports suggest the oxygen barrier is ten times better than PET; the carbon dioxide barrier is four times better and its water barrier is twice as good), so the shelf-life of products can be extended. Commercial production is some way off, however.

A lot is expected of the European bioplastics sector in the next few years, though – the bloc's share of global bioplastics production is expected to increase from 18% to 25% between now and 2022.

Pledges miss importance of reducing use

However, those that believe these new materials can be simply "dropped in" to replace their fossil fuel-based cousins and save the planet are "delusional", says a senior figure in the bio-based sector. The most pressing issue is to reduce excessive and unnecessary use of plastics – and this is where many of the commitments to date seem to come unstuck.

Mars, for example, will "continue to work towards 100% recyclability of our packaging by 2025". Nestlé's "ambition is that 100% of its packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2025". PepsiCo wants to "design 100% of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable". And Unilever is "ensuring all of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025".

However, there is no mention of reducing the amount of plastic packaging they use. This has irked Greenpeace. "Look at the forecasts for plastic consumption from EMF and the only way is to reduce and eventually ban single-use plastics," says Mirjam Kopp, who leads the NGO's global plastics campaign. "Recycling more only delays the growth." As for the alternative materials being bandied around, Kopp says: "We've got limited resources, so if we shift to another materials then we just put pressure on another sector."

Another issue is how these companies define 'recyclable', a term that is very different to 'easily recyclable' or 'widely recyclable' for example. Hilton suggests most things can be technically – as opposed to economically – recycled already. He wants the definitions tied down to avoid any loopholes.

Mars has already made 90% of its packaging recyclable or recoverable. Nestlé also insists "the majority" of its plastic packaging is recyclable or reusable, but a spokesperson will not put a figure on it or provide a definition of these terms. In fact, Mars, Unilever and Nestlé – all pioneers of this new plastics economy – all struggled to provide data on how much plastic packaging they use. A cynic might say it is in their interests to keep things as vague as possible, but consumers are fed up with packaging they have no idea what to do with.

Patricia Lopez, environment manager at trade body FoodDrinkEurope, says the indications from Brussels are targets will consider what is "cost-effectively recyclable". Brands will also want some wriggle room given the quantities of plastic being used and their susceptibility to the vagaries of the market (a survey just published by the UK's Food & Drink Federation showed packaging costs have increased for 77% of manufacturers in quarter one of this year).

Price also has a significant role to play when it comes to recycled content – Unilever wants to hit 25% recycled plastic content by 2025, while Nestlé and Danone want to reach 25% and 100% respectively for their bottles by the same deadline. "The drive to include more recycled plastic in our packaging is indeed a marathon and not a sprint," says Hayley Lloyd House, head of communications at Nestlé's UK waters arm.

Some suggest the pioneers have to tread carefully. "The risk [for them] is that not everyone is involved," explains John Zealley, senior managing director for products growth and strategy at Accenture. "You can't expect these companies to candidly absorb extra cost and leave others to 'game' the system. We've seen it happen with nutritional labels."

So, should firms stick with plastic – provided it is both recyclable and recycled – or twist and go for something like compostable packaging? There is not a simple solution (yet) and trying to find one will send many round the bend. Perhaps that is why they call it the circular economy.