Flurry of corporate plastic announcements hints at a new normal for the circular economy

In what has been a bumper week for news stories on single-use plastics, edie explores how corporates are forging ahead with new collection and take-back schemes for recyclable packaging that had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past seven days at least, it seems the businesses are refocusing on plans to reduce single-use plastics that took up much of corporate CSR efforts between 2018 and 2020

Over the past seven days at least, it seems the businesses are refocusing on plans to reduce single-use plastics that took up much of corporate CSR efforts between 2018 and 2020

It may have seemed the corporate focus on eliminating single-use plastics and promoting closed-loop packaging had fallen off the radar in recent months. The severe impact of the coronavirus pandemic sent sudden shockwaves across the globe and has led to a re-evaluation of business as usual and the broken, linear economy.

Much of the focus of the green recovery has been on the need for rapid decarbonisation in line with net-zero emissions. However, with an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report finding that moving to renewables across the globe will only address 55% of greenhouse gas emissions and that closed-loop value chains will be critical in reducing the remaining 45%, should more of the green recovery conversation focus on the circular economy?

Over the past seven days at least, it seems the businesses are refocusing on efforts to reduce single-use plastics that took up much of corporate CSR strategies between 2018 and 2020.

This week alone, the HolyGrail 2.0 project was unveiled, featuring more than 80 major European brands, including P&G, PepsiCo and Mondi backing the use of "digital watermarks" to improve the sorting of recyclable packaging.

The Co-op has started an in-store collection system for "scrunchable" plastics, including carriers bags, yoghurt pots and food wrappers, while Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Unilever all unveiled new products in packaging made from recycled plastics.

L’Oreal confirmed that bottles of Paris Elvive will be made from 100% recycled plastic. It also launched The Make-Up, Not Make Waste campaign, which will be delivered in partnership with waste management firm TerraCycle. It will see more than 1,000 locations across branches of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Superdrug and Boots for consumers to return and recycle empty makeup products, regardless of brand.

Re-focus or re-emergence?

Perhaps re-focus is the wrong word though. While a lot of sustainability announcements have to jump through numerous marketing and communications hoops to ensure they’re released at the right time, the re-emergence of corporate efforts to tackle plastics could be a ripple effect caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Covid-19 lockdown and instant change to remote working and social distancing meant a lot of changes for everyone worldwide across all industries,” TerraCycle and Loop Europe’s head of communications for Stephen Clarke said.

“Many of TerraCycle’s UK public drop off locations had to temporarily close due to social distancing and many locations where they are located like schools, community centres, non-essential stores were closed. So during this period we proactively made the decision not to launch new programmes as we felt that the timing wasn’t right and most importantly we didn’t want to encourage people to leave their homes during lockdown.”

Clarke’s comments echo edie’s survey of almost 250 sustainability professionals to gauge their thoughts on how the pandemic had impacted their work. When asked if their organisation had paused or delayed any sustainability announcements as a result of the pandemic 40% answered yes. Read the full results here.

The organisations represented by respondents spanned all major sectors, including manufacturing, the built environment, retail, utilities and finance. But it is clear to see from this week’s announcements that retailers and manufacturers are upping the pace on circular economy initiatives as their shops and facilities re-open.

A key aspect of the circular economy is consumer engagement, especially in dealing with post-consumer waste. Stats from Defra confirm that 10.5 million tonnes of packaging is used in the UK annually. Of the 4.7 million tonnes used for consumer goods, between 40-45% is recycled.

Leading businesses are starting to take more ownership for the packaging they manufacture or use, even the materials that aren’t widely recycled in the UK, such as food-grade packaging and flexible single-use plastics. Businesses are turning to take-back schemes and reusable or refillable packaging to drive this change and help reach long-term goals to phase-out single-use plastics.

Aldi, for example, became the first supermarket to launch own-brand concentrated cleaning liquids in refillable spray bottles. The products enable customers to mix the concentrate with tap water to create the equivalent of four bottles of cleaning spray. The move is expected to save an estimated 550 tonnes of single-use plastic a year.

Elsewhere, the world's largest restaurant company McDonald's this week launched a new global partnership to utilise the Loop collection model from TerraCycle that will see reusable and returnable cups trialled to cut back on single-use plastics.

While these take-back and collection schemes have been announced this week, work to get them ready for consumer interaction has taken months.

“It was the same with the launch of our new zero-waste shopping platform Loop which was originally scheduled to launch in March 2020 but had to be rescheduled for July 2020. The very strong performance of the platform to date is a testament to UK shopper’s interest for zero-waste shopping.”

“The work behind the scenes in working with brand partners continued to get everything ready to launch new recycling initiatives when the time was right,” Clarke added. “And over the last few weeks as the UK rules on social distancing have begun to ease we have launched a number of new recycling programmes with the likes of Baylis & Harding, Cathedral City, Ferrero, Hasbro, L.O.L Surprise, Philips, Maybelline and Babybel."

Policy delays and corporate politicking

This apparent appetite for closed-loop packaging is a welcome addition to a green recovery narrative that has been hindered by some cases of corporate lobbying and delays to key national policies on deposit return systems.

Scotland’s Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham confirmed in the midst of the pandemic that the rollout of a national deposit return system for plastic containers has had to be pushed back from an original start date of April 2020 to January 2021, to enable the government, businesses and society to focus on the coronavirus.

In the US, both New York and Maine have had to delay various bans and charges on single-use plastics, to April and January respectively. The delays are understandable but as political eyes turn their attentions away from single-use plastics, arguably the zeitgeist of the last two years, groups are emerging in an attempt to use the Covid-19 pandemic as a short-term economic boon for the derided material that is single-use plastics.

briefing from Greenpeace USA that claims that some US industry groups are using Covid-19 to lobby that bans on plastic bags should be suspended.

Greenpeace claims that Competitive Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, and American Energy Alliance have all been circulating new PR and studies that “explicitly warn anxious consumers that reusable grocery bags could be spreading coronavirus” and are therefore calling for single-use bags to be prioritised. The campaigners claim that those companies have “been known to work with” think tanks funded by fossil fuel companies.

As such, this flurry of plastic-focused announcements is welcome. But uncertainty looms on the horizon. A spike in coronavirus cases in the UK could see some retailers shut again and manufacturers lower production outputs.

However, the fossil fuel industry is already tightening its grip on plastics production as calls for a green recovery grow. Global oil majors are planning to invest $400bn in virgin plastic production within five years. With this level of financing, global production would increase by 25%, the think tank Carbon Tracker has found.

The report predicts that up to $300bn of plastic production assets could be stranded by mid-century as a result of anticipated policy introductions and consumer demands on single-use plastics.

Commenting on that report, Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, suggested that oil majors would be better off aligning with the low-carbon and closed-loop trajectory, in turn helping to speed it up.

"Sometimes it feels like we are trying to turn the plastic tide one thimble at a time; and then a report like this proves that all our collective efforts are worth it,” Sutherland said. “It's a prime example of backward thinking from these oil companies to ignore the mass movement against plastic pollution and believe their future wealth lies in this toxic, indestructible material which will last on the planet for centuries and is crucially something people no longer want.

"Governments around the world are starting to take action to cut plastic, organisations too, and the public are making themselves heard. Perhaps the major oil companies should invest in cleaner alternatives and place their eggs in a different basket which won't leave a lasting impact on the planet for future generations to come."

Indeed, more than 30 chief executives from some of the world's largest banks and asset managers, including BlackRock, Barclays, Lloyds, ING and the European Investment Bank, have this week backed new research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) highlighting how green finance can spur the circular economy. With financial institutions now aligning with the circular economy, a rapid transition to a closed-loop way of operating is in sight.

Market shifts through corporate actions and political frameworks need to be introduced now to ensure that green finance is funnelled into the correct initiatives, products and services moving forward. The wave of CSR announcements this week suggests that corporate efforts to meet plastic phase-out targets won’t be stopped by a global pandemic.

Matt Mace



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