Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Plastic use by big businesses likely to peak in 2021

Food and drinks

The Foundation’s report, released today (16 November), tracks the progress of the signatories of its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. The Commitment was launched in 2018 and now has 63 corporate signatories including Danone, Unilever, Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company and L’Oreal.

It aims to create a “new normal” for plastic packaging by eliminating single-use packaging materials, increasing 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.

According to the new progress report, the virgin plastic use of all participating businesses collectively is on track to peak this year. In 2025, the cohort will use 20% less virgin plastic than in 2018, provided that they deliver on their commitments.

The report notes that the majority of this reduction will be driven by companies replacing virgin plastic feedstocks with recycled content. Unilever now uses 11% recycled plastics, for example, up from 1% in 2018. It is intending to use 25% recycled plastics by 2025. Similar figures can be seen for many other signatories, with several targeting 100% recycled plastics by 2025.  

While Commitment signatories are on track to avoid the production of eight million tonnes of virgin, fossil-based plastics by 2025, the Foundation is urging brands to go further on using less plastics altogether. Recycled plastic is not automatically recyclable and, moreover, plastic cannot be recycled infinitely using technologies that exist at scale today.

The report reveals good progress on eliminating some of the most common kinds of unnecessary and particularly problematic single-use materials and items, including carbon black plastics (90% of signatories plan to phase out), PVC (92%) and single-use cutlery (94%).

Particular concern is now expressed about the lack of at-scale uptake of reuse and refill models. Only 5% of the brands participating are currently using refill or return models in some capacity. In comparison, 39% of signatories reported that they are substituting virgin plastic for recycled plastic in some cases, with that proportion rising to 41% for substitution with paper-based alternatives. More than half of Commitment signatories are using no reusable or refillable packaging at all.

This finding echoes that of a previous report from the Foundation, which found that just 2% of the products sold by the world’s biggest consumer goods firms during 2020 came in reusable packaging.

Dame Ellen MacArthur said: “We won’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution – eliminating single-use packaging is a vital part of the solution.

“Alarmingly, our report shows little investment in this. We need a much more urgent focus on upstream innovation to rethink how to deliver products without packaging or by using reusable packaging. This doesn’t just allow us to design out waste, it also means we can design out carbon emissions whilst creating new opportunities for business. Shifting just 20% of plastic packaging from single-use to reuse is an opportunity estimated to be worth $10bn.”

Responding to the report, Greenpeace’s global plastics lead Graham Forbes said: “It is time for the world’s largest brands to give up their dream of recycled content as a supposed fix to this crisis. It makes no difference to a turtle in our oceans that ingests plastic whether it is ‘virgin’ or ‘recycled’ or ‘plant-based.’ And by continuing to advance recycling as the solution, brands are giving license to the fossil fuel industry to produce more plastic.  

“The consumer goods sector needs to focus on reuse. If these companies are serious about tackling plastic pollution and addressing climate change, they must set reuse targets of at least 25% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. The time for false solutions has passed. The oceans, climate, and human health depend on real leadership from the world’s largest companies, not more of the same.”

Plastic policy

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report also calls on Commitment signatories to support the introduction of policy changes such as stronger extended producer responsibility (EPR) requirements and deposit return schemes. It notes that signatories account for 20% of the global packaging market, meaning that legislation and regulation could push the other 80% to move more rapidly – while also enabling the signatories to meet their own commitments.

Earlier this month, the Scottish Government confirmed that a ban on a string of single-use plastics will come into effect from June 2022. Items covered by the ban are plastic cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers, balloon sticks and all food and drinks containers made using expanded polystyrene. Expanded polystyrene is not recyclable.

The UK Government has this week stated that intends to launch a call for evidence on cutlery and polystyrene before the end of the year. Another measure to be considered is new labelling for wet wipes and cigarette packets. The UK consultations build on existing bans on plastics including microplastic beads in cosmetic products and plastic-stemmed cotton buds.  

Due to delays with the Resources and Waste Strategy and Environment Bill amid Covid-19, a UK-wide deposit return scheme is not likely to be introduced until 2024. New EPR requirements are also being implemented more slowly than first anticipated.

These policy changes will sit alongside a new tax on plastics packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled content, which is set at £200 per tonne and will come into force in April 2022.

Sarah George

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