It is now the end of Plastic Free July 2022. As such, I thought no better time than to write a blog about plastic – specifically within the context of single-use plastic and packaging.
Plastic is actually a really good material
It is cheap, versatile, and durable, giving it an almost perfect score in the world of packaging, with around 40% of all plastic produced worldwide used exclusively for packaging. But let me finish.
Plastic is also one of the world’s most consistent and persistent polluters, using 8% of the world’s oil and contributing considerable threats to environmental and human health. Most plastic is not recycled and is either incinerated or ends up in landfill and we have already surpassed the novel entities (chemicals and plastics) planetary boundary this year. Yet there are little to no restrictions or legislations over plastic production – the plastics industry continues to grow each year.
How are we tackling the plastic problem?
Plastic Free July is an annual movement which brings together millions of people across the globe to be part of the solution to plastic pollution. The great thing about the yearly initiative is that it provides its 100 million+ participants with a substantial set of resources to help them make changes and improvements to their household single-use plastic. This level of support and self-help is not dissimilar to what businesses should be doing to activate and align their suppliers to their own sustainability goals - more on that story later.
Whilst this movement may achieve laudable things by starting the conversation and raising awareness with many consumers for one month of the year, plastic pollution is not something that consumers can tackle alone – it requires a collective and collaborative approach, one in which brands, retailers, and their respective packaging suppliers need to get involved.
One way the UK government decided to get businesses and manufacturers to act was by introducing a new tax on plastic packaging in April 2022. The tax aims to provide an economic incentive for businesses to investigate and increase the amount of recycled plastic in their packaging. This will be done by taxing any packaging in (or imported into) the UK that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. However, if the price of recycled materials significantly increases or oil prices fall, then a fixed tax (of £200 per metric tonne of virgin plastic used) will not be enough to tackle the problem. It needs be flexible enough to deter businesses from sourcing cheaper virgin plastics and just paying the tax.
Is it helping?
Many have argued that the UK tax is insufficient to actually have a positive impact. Whilst I agree, anything which succeeds in increasing the demand for recycled plastic - and in turn boosts the pitiful 9% of plastic currently being recycled globally - is still a step in the right direction. In the sustainability world, we take all the small wins we can get.
Plastic has a limited number of times it can be recycled before it is no longer useable and the virgin plastic industry is showing no sign of slowing down production. This makes the increase in recycled plastic packaging only the pilot project of a much larger journey for brands and retailers.
I would love to tell you that the majority of brands, retailers, and their suppliers are smashing their recycled content, recyclability, and reduction targets, and are ready to start eliminating plastic from their packaging completely and work with suppliers to innovate for home-compostable alternatives. But this is not the case.
Trust the process
Whether the priority is to reduce the plastic in packaging, increase the recycled content, or even just figure out where to start with plastic packaging, it all begins with opening up a dialogue with suppliers. This is a catalyst which sets everything else in motion from conveying accurate information about degradability and recyclability, to tackling waste, increasing recycled content, and collaborating on solutions to reduce plastic use.
What first needs to be understood is how ready and capable suppliers are to be able to provide information about the composition of packaging materials. Some suppliers might be mature enough in their sustainability journeys to offer more sustainable solutions; others might not even have a packaging technologist on their staff. This is where a supplier readiness survey comes into play to segment the supply base by maturity and capability. This enables brands and retailers to understand their suppliers better and set realistic targets. A target might outline a desired increase in recycled plastic content or a reduction in the amount of packaging needed overall. If this seems too far-fetched due to lack of supplier readiness, interim targets can help brands and retailers to collaborate with current suppliers to adhere to any new legislation and reduce any environmental impact where possible, prior to tackling more ambitious targets. Remember, success is the sum of small efforts.
Tracking progress towards a target requires a reference point for the start of the project – asking suppliers to complete a bill of materials for packaging establishes this benchmark. It is then time to activate and align packaging suppliers to this initiative and get them all singing from the same hymn sheet about plastic. The supplier readiness survey paves the way for this beautifully as it enables brands to target communications and supplier self-help to specific groups of suppliers based on their knowledge and completion of the benchmark exercise.
Suppliers need to be consistently held accountable to providing accurate and up-to-date packaging composition data and fulfilling commitments they have made to reach specific packaging goals. Only then can brands and retailers make substantial, evidence-backed claims about packaging and be ready to face the scrutiny about plastic packaging that is to come – the UK plastic tax is only the beginning.
Have you been pressing snooze too long on a sustainable packaging project or struggle with a lack of resource? Discover how our platform and process can help you rise to the challenge.