Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Refillable packaging still accounts for just 2% of the market

Big businesses are opting for paper-based or lightweight packaging over reusables

That is a key finding of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s second annual progress report on the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, published today (5 November). The commitment has been adopted by more than 250 businesses and binds signatories to achieve four key commitments by 2025: eliminating all single-use plastics packaging which is problematic or unnecessary; ensuring that all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable; ensuring that 50% of plastic packaging is effectively recycled or composted and reaching 30% recycled or responsibly sourced, bio-based content in packaging.

On the second aim, the report reveals that Commitment signatories collectively class almost two-thirds (65%) of their plastics packaging portfolios as recyclable. But progress has been far slower in the reuse space – while 56% of business members are either running a reuse pilot or planning to do so within 12 months, the share of reusable packaging across the cohort stood at just 1.9%. This is equivalent to just an 0.1% increase on 2018 levels.

This is despite the fact that many Commitment signatories are taking part in TerraCycle’s Loop platform – a retail offering that delivers refillable products directly to consumers’ homes. They include Unilever, PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Company.

“Elimination efforts remain focused on a relatively small set of materials and formats, and are being delivered primarily through substitution towards other plastics or paper, or lightweighting, rather than by reducing the need for single-use packaging altogether,” the report states. It does note, however, the impact Covid-19 has had on the practicalities of refill and reuse offerings.

As for the first goal, the report reveals that just 17% of the problematic or unnecessary single-use items produced by signatories have successfully been eliminated. This is a 25% year-on-year increase but is not rapid enough.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s lead for the New Plastics Economy project, Sander Defruyt, urged businesses to take “major steps forward in rethinking what packaging is put on the market in the first place.”

“We are calling on industry to rapidly increase efforts to reduce single-use packaging and eliminate packaging types that have no credible pathway to making recycling work in practice and at scale,” he said. “We know industry cannot deliver the change alone, and we are calling on policymakers to put in place the enabling conditions, incentives and international framework to accelerate this transition.”

Report recommendations                                          

Elsewhere, the report reveals that consumer goods and retail signatories have achieved an average of 6.2% recycled content in plastics packaging. This proportion is 22% higher than in 2018 but, again, is nowhere near the 2025 requirement of 30%.

To help businesses and other actors collaborate to overcome these challenges and accelerate progress, the report outlines two recommendations for businesses and two for governments.

It provides advice for businesses looking to accelerate the transition away from non-recyclable packaging, urging them to “decisively innovate away from them” in the coming months or to develop and implement a “credible roadmap to make recycling work”. Business signatories collectively supported the recycling of 1.1 million metric tonnes of plastics in 2019. In comparison, Coca-Cola alone produces three million metric tonnes annually. Businesses should complement their plans with “ambitious” reduction targets, the report argues.

Governments, meanwhile, are urged to collaborate on a global direction for action on plastics and to create an international framework through the UN’s Environment Assembly. This could help prevent leaks and waste crimes, while providing an economic boost, the report states. Policymakers are also encouraged to broaden extended producer responsibility schemes and set stricter rules, while, in tandem, scaling up investment in recycling capacity.

Some 20 governments have signed up to the Commitment, including the UK. It is also supported by more than 200 third-party organisations including investors and universities.

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Day Three of the event will be specifically dedicated to resources and the circular economy, with several sessions covering plastics. 

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Sarah George

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