Plastic – The End of a Love Story

With plastic waste dominating the news, the material is under global scrutiny for its negative environmental impact on the world’s oceans. Packaging companies are heavily investing in innovation towards sustainable alternatives, launching new formats that claim to be more environmentally-friendly.

A hard goodbye

The food and beverage industry is responsible for 95% of all plastic packaging placed on the global retail market, with a total of 2.2 trillion units of plastic packaged products sold through retailers in 2018 alone.

The commitment to make all packaging sustainable by 2030 will require innovation that needs to be performed in a relatively short period of time, bringing technical and financial challenges to businesses. Nevertheless, collaboration among different players along the supply chain and even between competitors to co-create solutions is now perceived as a win-win solution. In September 2019, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola announced their plans to step away from plastics lobbying group, the Plastic Industry Association, as they consider the association “took measures that were not fully consistent with the companies’ commitments and goals”.

Reinvention driven by innovation

The once ubiquitous material is losing its popularity due to increasing global awareness of its harmful environmental effect, with consumers actively switching to recyclable, reusable and biodegradable alternatives.

In May 2019, recycling company Terracycle revolutionised the market with the launch of its Loop initiative in New York and Paris, offering a durable alternative to single-use packaging. Four months later, The Body Shop has launched a new retail concept in central London where consumers can return empty packaging from any brand and refill shower gels in water bottles.

Governments have pushed sustainable packaging towards the top of their agenda, with some countries implementing bans on a range of single-use plastic products and/or taxing products with 30% or less recycled content. Brands are following suit pledging to make all packaging sustainable by 2030 or earlier.

No one size fits all

While the development of alternatives to plastic packaging will offer consumers greater choice, these alternatives need to be assessed depending on the type of product, the availability of alternative materials and the potential unintended consequences of a global material shift.

Understanding the different opportunities and challenges each country offers will be key for brands to achieve their global commitments. For example, Coca-Cola in Brazil has set a goal for 40% of its bottles to be returnable by 2020. Whereas Coca-Cola in Europe is investing in recycling infrastructure and supply chain for recycled plastics, with the goal of producing all plastic bottles with at least 50% recycled content by 2025. The company has recently unveiled a breakthrough technology to produce bottles using recovered and recycled marine plastics.

Sustainable packaging is now directly affecting consumers’ brand perception and companies are trying to meet ethical demand quickly. Businesses are rushing to find solutions that are not always necessarily better, in the hope of alleviating a negative reputation in the short term. However, replacement materials should not become a mere marketing strategy and must serve as a genuine response to the environmental degradation we face today.

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