Why are consumer goods giants using more plastic, less efficiently?

Recent analyses from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Business360 have revealed that consumer goods giants are way off track to deliver plastic reduction aims – with many actually increasing their overall plastic footprint, partly due to less efficient use of plastics.

Why are consumer goods giants using more plastic, less efficiently?

Late last year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed that signatories of its Global Commitment, who collectively represent one-fifth of the global plastic packaging industry in terms of material use, had not collectively reduced their virgin plastic use at all.

Some signatories including L’Oreal, Mars, the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, McCain Foods, McCormick & Company and Diageo actually increased their plastic use by weight since 2018.

While most firms had begun sourcing more recycled materials and implemented programmes to downsize packaging, this was not enough to offset growth in sales.

The Foundation highlighted a major missed opportunity in scaling refill and reuse; less than 2% of products put on the market by signatory businesses comes in refillable or reusable packaging, a proportion that has remained level throughout the Global Commitment’s existence.

Building on this, an analysis published by Business360 this week*** revealed that the consumer goods sector has not meaningfully reduced plastic use on either an absolute or intensity-based basis.

Business360 assessed the plastics use of 11 companies – Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, SC Johnson, Reckitt, Natura, L’Oreal, L’Occitane, Henkel, Essity, the Clorox Company and Werner & Mertz. Unlike the Ellen MacArthur Foundation research, this sample does not include retailers.

Some of these firms have decreased their absolute plastic use with the best performers in this regard being SC Johnson and Henkel. Both have cut their plastic use more than 15% since 2018.

Unilever and has posted less than a 5% decrease since 2018 while Kellogg, L’Oreal and Colgate-Palmolive have increased their overall plastics use.

This mixed progress means that collectively, these businesses are using more plastic to generate each unit of dollar sales, Business360 found. It tracked an 8.4% increase in plastic intensity between 2018 and 2022.

Even those businesses that were decreasing their plastic intensity were doing so at a rate of 3% or less per year during this period.

*** Editor’s note: The full Business360 report is 100 pages long and sits behind a paywall.

Incremental change

Business360 has flagged several contributors to the sector’s continued use of virgin, fossil-based plastics, which remain cheaper and more abundantly accessible than recycled plastics and many other alternative materials.

Like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Business360 has tracked a slow uptake of reusable and refillable plastic packaging beyond limited trials or applications on a very narrow proportion of a business’s global portfolio.

It argues that the sector’s rhetoric is still largely focused on recycling our way out of the problem. This is despite the fact that half of the packaging marketed globally by the 11 companies assessed is not recyclable.

Using less packaging – and certainly less packaging that cannot be recycled – has been a priority for some firms, the report acknowledges. But little has been done collectively to tackle the intensity issue.

In terms of sourcing recycled content, the average firm is now using recycled feedstocks for 46% of its total plastic packaging portfolio per Business360 figures. But few businesses have managed to increase this proportion by 10% or more over the past five years.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has argued that further, accelerated progress to scale recycled plastic use would necessitate the involvement of policymakers. Concerted and connected efforts would need to be made to boost recycling rates and improve recyclate quality to ensure that supply can keep pace with rapid demand growth.

Global intervention needed

Business360’s report flags consumer anger about plastic pollution as a potential driver of change for businesses. Yet its own evidence has proven that consumer pressure alone has not been enough to drive a sea change since 2018, a year remembered in the corporate sustainability space for consumer and campaigner action against plastics borne from the ‘Blue Planet 2’ TV series.

We are at a crucial juncture for the future shape of efforts to reduce plastic use and pollution. Either national and international efforts will continue to permit incrementalism, leading to insufficient changes, or they could change the landscape in terms of legislation, regulation and the financial case for plastic use.

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 the UN Environment Programme’s Plastics Treaty – the instrument to which he is referring – cannot enable actors to “pick or choose” between scaling recycling systems and cutting back on plastic use.

The Treaty has a headline ambition of eliminating plastic pollution by 2040. The UN has said it would be possible to cut pollution rates by 80% by this timeframe with co-benefits for the economy and society.

A first draft was published in September 2023 and it is hoped that the Treaty can be finalised by the end of 2024. The next round of negotiations are tabled for April in Canada, ahead of what are intended to be final negotiations in South Korea in November.

It bears noting that, to date, consumer goods giants and retailers have broadly pushed for a Treaty that includes a reduction in plastics production rather than one focused solely on waste management. The same cannot be said of lobbying forces representing industries upstream including chemicals.

Related blog: Are we approaching a cliff edge with the Global Plastic Treaty?

Related news: Costs of plastic pollution largely borne by low-income nations, WWF says

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