Consumer product companies will need a "substantial acceleration" of progress around sustainability of their plastic packaging to meet targets they've set for 2025, according to a new report from The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The foundation, which is leading a high-profile effort with more than 250 companies to change how they use plastics, said big consumer brands like SC Johnson Inc. and Group Danone are making progress in areas like using more recycled content and phasing out PVC and polystyrene in packaging.
But EMF said that looking broadly at the major global consumer product firms they work with, there's been limited progress in other areas such as making plastic packaging more recyclable — they highlighted flexible film as needing urgent work — and reducing single-use plastics or encouraging more reusable packaging models.
It's the group's second annual progress report since launching the effort in 2018. Firms including Unilever plc and the Coca-Cola Co. made sizable commitments to EMF around changing their plastics footprint by 2025, and 118 of them publicly detailed their progress in the report.
"The report showed real progress but also showed that we'll need to accelerate progress to get to the 2025 targets," said Sander Defruyt, lead for EMF's New Plastics Economy initiative, in a Nov. 5 webinar timed with the report's release.
EMF's report can be seen as a guide to the direction that some global consumer product companies, who are key customers of the plastics industry, are headed in their use of plastic.
"We're calling on businesses to set ambitious reduction targets to step up the efforts on solutions that go beyond recycling, solutions that reduce the need for single-use packaging in the first place," Defruyt said. "Secondly, we're calling on industry to come up with a collective way forward on how to deal with these packaging types that are currently not recyclable, in particular the small format flexibles.
"We either need urgently to see a credible plan on how to make recycling work for these, or if there is no credible plan, we need to see bold action to innovate away from these packaging types in the first place," he said.
Call for plastic treaty
The webinar included executives with SC Johnson and Danone, who endorsed many of the EMF calls.
For example, EMF this year called for more government action, urging a global plastics waste treaty similar to the Paris Climate Accord. Some countries are calling for negotiations on that treaty to begin at next year's United Nations Environment Assembly, scheduled for February in Kenya.
"Danone is also calling for this UN treaty on plastic," said Katharina Stenholm, senior vice president, who argued such a treaty would help set global goal and standards around recycling.
"We can design the most recyclable packaging, but if we don't have the collection systems in place, we will never achieve our targets," she said. "So therefore, we think that it's really important that all our aspiration get anchored in public policy."
Another of the four main recommendations in this year's EMF report is for governments to set up "dedicated and stable" funding systems for collection and sorting of plastic recyclables, using extended producer responsibility systems paid for by industry.
An executive with SC Johnson, which reported that it increased its use of post-consumer recycled plastic from 6 percent last year to 14 percent this year, said a producer responsibility approach is needed.
"We enthusiastically support and endorse regulation and legislation along these lines," Alan VanderMolen, senior vice president and chief communications officer with Racine, Wis.-based SC Johnson.
"In particular, we think it's really important to participate in the writing and structuring of this regulation to ensure that it not only encourages producer responsibility, but … that the funds coming from it also drive innovation in packaging solutions and investments in alternative packaging solutions," he said.
An executive with investment management firm Federated Hermes Inc., said they see regulations driving more innovation in new packaging in Europe than in North America
"One of the things that we've really seen is there is a clear differential in the innovation that's being brought to the European packaging space, vs. what you might see in North America, in terms of the big buyer demand," said Aaron Hay, who works on packaging and sustainable development for the Pittsburgh-based fund. "And that is driven by a history of much stronger regulation. Some of it is tied into EPR. And some of it is tied to other regulatory regimes."
The EMF report said that its companies reported a 6.2 percent level of recycled content in their plastic packaging in 2019, which was a 22 percent increase from the year before.
It also reported basically flat levels of growth in use of virgin resin. Companies reported their use of virgin plastic was down 0.1 percent in 2019, while their overall volume of plastic packaging rose 0.6 percent, presumably fueled by recycled resin.
It said 31 percent of the firms had targets for reducing use of virgin plastic, and they reported that 65 percent of their plastic packaging was reusable, recyclable or compostable, an increase of 1.3 percent from 2018. The report said it would be a "significant task" to get to the 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable target by 2025.
As well, EMF said that while companies are making "substantial investments" totaling $10 billion to meet their 2025 commitments, it said there's "limited evidence" toward large-scale reductions in single-use plastics.
It also called for more work on reusable packaging models, saying that while 56 percent of the companies have pilot projects, less than 2 percent of their plastic packaging is reusable.