Business giants unveil new plastics pledges after joining global Ellen MacArthur Foundation commitment

The commitment is being supported by investors

The NGO’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment was launched in October 2018, initially uniting 250 organisations across the plastics value chain with the aim of creating a “new normal” for plastic packaging.

Achieving this shift, the Foundation said, will involve businesses, governments, investors and non-profits working together to help the industry eliminate single-use packaging materials, increase the amount of reused or recycled plastics in new products and innovate to ensure 100% of plastic packaging can be reused, recycled, or composted by 2025.

Posting its first update to the initiative, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed that more than 50 new businesses have joined the Commitment in the past five months, with corporate members now collectively accounting for one-fifth of the world’s plastic packaging production and $2trn of annual revenue. Total membership now stands at 350 organisations. 

This progress is detailed in the Foundation’s spring 2019 report, which sets out the precise plastic-related commitments made by all 150 corporates taking part in the initiative – most of which have been newly announced through the document. Member businesses include the likes of Mars, Nestle and Danone from the food and drink sector; consumer goods giants such as Unilever, SC Johnson and Colgate Palmolive; retailers including Walmart, H&M and Target; packaging producers Amcor and Mondi and waste management giants SUEZ and Veolia.

The report reveals that all 107 participating consumer goods firms, retailers and packaging producers have now pledged to make 100% of their plastic packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. It notes that 16 of these firms, including Colgate Palmolive, have set “concrete deadlines” to eliminate PVC, while 12 drinks firms are implementing plastic straw phase-outs and 14 retailers – including Zara owner Inditex and Lidl’s parent company Schwarz Group – will eliminate single-use plastic carrier bags.

A further key update is on the proportion of recycled plastics these 107 corporates are sourcing for packaging production. Signatories have, on average, pledged to achieve 25% recycled content in all plastic packaging by 2025, up from the current global average of 2-3%.

The report highlights the fact that some signatories have set “far higher” 2025 targets, including pledges from Werner & Mertz to use 100% recycled content; Diageo and L’Occitane en Provence to use 40% and L’Oreal and Marks & Spencer (M&S) to use 30%. Collectively, member corporations are set to source five million tonnes of recycled plastic over the next six years, mitigating seven million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Progress by members in launching and scaling up reuse models has proven slower, however, with just 40 participating companies committing to launch or expand refill-based offerings. The majority of these schemes fall under TerraCycle’s ‘Loop’ platform, whereby businesses provide product refills while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging.

“The targets and action plans set out in this report are a significant step forward compared with the pace of change of past decades,” the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy lead Sander Defruyt said.

“However, they are still far from truly matching the scale of the problem, particularly when it comes to the elimination of unnecessary items and innovation towards reuse models. Ambition levels must continue to rise to make real strides in addressing global plastic pollution by 2025 and moving from commitment to action is crucial.

“Major investments, innovations and transformation programmes need to start now.”

Reuse or recycle?

Given that between eight and 12 million tonnes of plastic are believed to be seeping into oceans and other marine environments every year, with between $80bn and $120bn being lost from the global economy annually through wasted or littered plastic packaging, the potential for businesses to recapture and recycle this resource stream into new products is immense.

But the New Plastics Economy report comes at a time when several sustainability professionals, small businesses and green campaign groups are tout reuse and packaging-free products as the only viable solution to the world’s plastic pollution problem. They include A Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland and Reboot Innovation’s director Chris Sherwin.

Such a viewpoint is largely borne from research suggesting that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled, compounded by assertations from scientists and NGOs that the amount of plastics produced, littered and incinerated globally is only set to rise continually, despite recent action by businesses.

WWF, for example, has predicted that a further 104 million tonnes of plastic will “leak” into ecosystems by 2030 without a “drastically different” and collaborative approach to the issue. In this time period, the NGO has warned, overall CO2 emissions generated through the plastic life cycle will increase by 50%, as plastic incineration trebles and alternatives are introduced before any unintended consequences are examined in full.

In response to the issue, businesses are increasingly expanding their plastics action beyond their own operation by collaborating with competitors, policymakers and NGOs.

Last month, for example, a coalition of 18 corporates launched a new alliance aimed at creating frameworks to measure, map and reduce plastic and microplastic pollution across the globe. Called the Plastic Leak Project and backed by the likes of Adidas, McDonald’s and Dow Chemical Company, the scheme is being supported by the UN and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Similarly, 26 companies from across the plastics value chain have jointly committed more than $1bn (£777m) as part of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which is striving to scale solutions that minimise the amount of plastic entering the environment and remove existing pollution. Founding members include the likes of Procter & Gamble (P&G), Veolia and ExxonMobil.

However, businesses taking part in the latter initiative have faced criticism for investing in new plastic production facilities or expanding their existing infrastructure while pledging to address the issue on a global stage. 

Sarah George

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