Brands and retailers not on track for key 2025 sustainability goals on plastics

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has today (31 October) published its latest annual progress report on its Global Commitment – an initiative under which more than 1,000 organisations are supporting goals intended to tackle global plastic pollution.

Supporters include brands and retailers representing one-fifth of the global plastic packaging industry in terms of material used.

The report confirms that Global Commitment signatories are collectively using the same amount of virgin plastics that they were at the start of the initiative. Regarding company-specific reduction goals, only 27% of the businesses participating have either already met them or are on track to do so by 2025.

Companies not involved in the Global Commitment have collectively increased their use of virgin materials by 11% since 2018.

Global Commitment signatories are also off track in regards to a collective target for 26% of content to be post-consumer recycled by 2025. The proportion at present is 11.7%, up from 4.7% in 2018.

The report does note that the increase has been significant, equivalent to 1.5 million tonnes more recycled plastics being used per year. This mitigates some 2.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually for the companies.

Yet further exponential progress would be needed to meet the 2025 target and this would necessitate the involvement of policymakers.

Roadblocks for recycling and reuse

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation additionally notes in the report that signatories are unlikely to meet a target for all packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, calling overall progress to date “incremental”.

Last year, 64.5% of the plastic packaging produced by Global Commitment signatories was reusable, recyclable or compostable. This is up from 63.2% in 2019.

The main barriers to progress on recycling, the Foundation believes, are a lack of recycling infrastructure in some markets and the continued reliance on flexible plastic packaging formats in most markets.

Regarding reuse, the proportion of plastic packaging that is reusable has remained flat, at less than 2% of the market. The report outlines how the practice setting of quantitative reusability targets by brands remains rare but is gathering pace with pioneers including PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company.

There is some good news. For example, the report confirms that brands and retailers have made headway in eliminating some of the most problematic single-use plastics.

Some brands have completely eliminated PVC and are on track to eliminate expanded polystyrene by 2025. Overall, Global Commitment signatories recorded a 36% decrease in expanded polystyrene use between 2020 and 2022.

Plastics Treaty

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s plastics initiative lead Sander Defruyt said that, for more meaningful action to stem plastic pollution, “the international, legally binding instrument on plastic pollution currently being negotiated, alongside accelerated business action, are now needed”.

He said: “We can’t pick or choose from either of these measures – both are crucial to ensure progress is pushed further and faster.”

The instrument to which Defruyt is referring is the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) global plastics treaty. This agreement is intended to super-charge efforts to eliminate plastic pollution through to 2040.

A first draft was published in September, following on from agreement on the broad terms of the treaty last year. It is hoped that a finalised treaty will be ratified in 2024.

The UNEP has stated that it would be possible to cut global plastic pollution rates by 80% by 2040, and reap more than $4.5trn of cost savings in the process. This would require major policy shifts and market adjustments.

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