The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose high-profile campaigns have enlisted six of the 10 largest fast-moving consumer goods companies to cut the environmental footprint of their single-use plastics, wants them to go a step further and pledge to reduce virgin plastics use.
The push comes as part of a series of recommendations in a report from the Cowes, England-based charity and the United Nations Environment Program reviewing the first year of their New Plastics Economy project.
The groups launched it in October 2018 with commitments from some of the world's biggest users of packaging to rethink their approach to plastic.
While many of the 2018 commitments focused on recycled content and packaging design, the 23 Oct progress report — released at a major United Nations ocean conference in Norway — called for companies to follow in the footsteps of Unilever plc, Mars Inc. and PepsiCo. Inc. and cut use of virgin plastics.
It also encouraged companies to switch to reusable packaging and move "beyond recycling" as an approach to plastics management.
"We encourage signatories to set explicit targets to reduce their virgin plastics consumption," the group wrote. "Calling it out explicitly sends a clear signal that we need to reduce, and ultimately fully decouple, the use of packaging from the consumption of finite fossil resources."
The report noted that in the last year, Unilever said it would cut virgin plastic packaging use by 50% by 2025, Mars by 25% and Pepsi by 20% in its beverage business.
The foundation praised Unilever's approach of shifting to reusable packaging and using more recycled plastic in packaging, rather than simply reducing the weight of existing packaging.
"While material substitution and light-weighting are part of the mix of available elimination levers, a simplistic approach applying predominantly these two actions would not realise the desired shift towards a circular economy," the foundation said.
While the report only represents the opinions of the foundation and UNEP, their New Plastics Economy project has helped set the plastics agenda for large brand owners.
For example, the report noted that companies have agreed to increase the use of recycled plastic in packaging five-fold by 2025, going from on average 4% recycled plastic content in 2018 to 22% by 2025.
That would be the equivalent of taking 1.7 million cars off the road each year, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 8 million tonnes and keeping 25 million barrels of oil in the ground, it said.
The report said that while it's only been one year since commitments were made, it sees "significant initial steps" being taken by the companies.
"Almost all business and government signatories have significantly raised their ambition level over the past year," the report said.
It noted changes in packaging design and said a large number of firms are taking steps to eliminate what it called "problematic packaging" like polystyrene and PVC.
As well, it said majorities of its signatories have taken steps to stop using single-use bags or straws, or phase out carbon black plastic, which can be hard to detect in recycling streams,
In specific company actions, it noted Danone launched a new water bottle in Indonesia without labels, where the logo is integrated into the bottle shape.
And it said Dutch grocery company Ahold Delhaize, which owns the Giant and Food Lion chains in the United States, tested "dry misting" technology to keep fruits and vegetables fresh without needing plastic packaging.
It said that 43 signatory companies said they have active pilot projects testing reusable packaging models, although it noted that 97% of plastic packaging remains single use.
Companies that have made commitments account for 20% of the world's plastics packaging, including seven of the 10 largest makers of plastics packaging. The foundation also noted recycling-related commitments from plastics resin makers Borealis and Indorama Ventures, who have pledged to increase recycled content by 350,000 tonnes and 750,000 tonnes respectively.
The report said that many of the major brand companies are starting from low baselines around recycled content use. Among the 10 largest fast-moving consumer goods makers, Coca-Cola Co. led with 9% of its plastic packaging being made from post-consumer content.
L'Oreal SA was second at 5%, with PepsiCo Inc. at 3% and Nestlé SA at 2%.