Are businesses thinking about the SDGs when targeting plastics?

The recent wave of pledges against single-use plastic could lead to unintended consequences due to a lack of cross-sector alignment that is failing to examine the role of packaging in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

That is the claim by former Coca-Cola innovation connector and founder of the Packaging Collective, Sanjay Patel, who feels that the battle to reduce the amount of plastic entering into waterways is lacking an “overall brief” that links retailers, consumers and waste management firms together to create a holistic solution.

Speaking ahead of his appearance at edie Live in May (scroll down for details), Patel claimed that exploration into bio-based or compostable materials had led to some “infighting” within the packaging industry which was subsequently ignoring the needs of society.

“We have to stop infighting as a packaging industry,” Patel said. “We have to stop vilifying and pouring fuel on the idea that plastic is bad. We need to work together as an industry to talk about the value of packaging for societal and environmental prosperity.

“No one has articulated an overall brief for packaging and aligned it for everyone. Everyone has a view, government, consumers, brands. But the brief for business has to be being the best environmental citizen while supporting a population of seven billion people.”

While efforts to tackle plastic pollution, which accounts for 95% of the rubbish in the oceans, link to goals around responsible consumption and life below water, Patel noted that solutions shouldn’t inadvertently reduce access to food in some nations as plastic still serves a purpose in maintaining shelf life. In fact, Patel called for more aligned information to be aimed at consumers.

Consumer concerns

Patel chaired the morning session of the UK Bottled Water conference last Thursday (15 March), alongside panellists including Hubbub’s Trewin Restorick (also speaking at edie Live) and Coca-Cola European Partners’ head of public affairs, Julian Hunt. Patel noted that the crowd were concerned over the recent revelations that 90% of bottled water contain traces of microplastics.

Evidently consumers are pushing for change. Recent pledges from a host of retailers to reduce the amounts of single-use plastic in circulation have been welcomed by green groups and consumers alike. Some are already exploring alternatives, such as Lego, which has unveiled a new range made entirely from plant-based plastic.

Bioplastics can be listed as durable and biodegradable. Durable bioplastics can be recycled but can still encounter the same issues as traditional plastics, notably regarding waste segregation and contamination. Most biodegradable plastics will only break down in high-temperature industrial composting facilities – not household variants – and are not recyclable. Patel believes the compostable packaging could lead to people littering more, under the belief that it won’t harm the environment.

If businesses are to move towards a truly circular economy, whereby durability and recyclability are two essentials of product manufacturing, Patel suggests that packagers, retailers and waste management organisations should work holistically to develop a singular brief for packaging that all consumers can understand.

“We need a collective voice that can create a basic consumer message; a cross-brand discipline that places the same information in the same stores and on the same products,” Patel added.

“Every consumer touch point should be built around a common marketing campaign. Retailers are rightly excited about the packaging challenge, but the whole area of consumer education needs to be much more simplified.”

Sanjay Patel at edie Live

Sanjay Patel will be speaking on the Resource Efficiency stage at edie Live on May 22. The session will hear from those who are championing innovation and collaboration to catalyse change across the packaging supply chain to drive sustainability.

Running between 22 – 23 May 2018, edie Live plans to show delegates how they can achieve their Mission Possible. Through the lens of energy, resources, the built environment, mobility and business leadership an array of expert speakers will be on hand to inspire delegates to achieve a sustainable future. For more information click here.

Matt Mace

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