Key Themes for the Future of Plastic Packaging

Recycling, sustainability, and collaboration were the recurring themes across all panel discussions and debates during The Future of Plastics conference hosted by Innovation Forum in Amsterdam on October 30th and 31st, 2019. This article provides a brief snapshot of key conclusions from those debates that included stakeholders from across the global plastic-packaging value chain, like The Dow Chemical Company, Braskem, The Coca-Cola Company, Tiger Brands, and WWF.

Recycling: The ‘Fix-It-All’ Solution

“There is definitely a role for plastic packaging to play, due to its inherent benefits, if recycled and [produced] with a high share of recycled content. It’s better than glass and cans, but you need to place a value on the bottle! This is a critical part of the discussion.” This statement from one of the conference speakers neatly sums up a lot of the discussion during the two days. Other relevant conclusions include:

- Innovation in (plastic) packaging is critical, but the number of new materials introduced in the market outpaces investments in waste collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure. This limits sustainable solutions. So how can this challenge be tackled? Most suggested solutions were linked to homogenous regulation, which could help responsible companies efficiently steer their recycling efforts. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, which are already in place in almost every EU country, were proposed as an efficient tool. A major flaw, however, is that each EPR is different. Nevertheless, there were calls for creating a global EPR scheme because “[if] waste has a value, it will be picked up” as it should be deemed a misplaced resource. For such a system to be effective, though, it is necessary to clearly define the fundamental rules and definitions of what we aim to achieve. For example, it was mentioned that in the EU’s EPR, it is acceptable to export waste. Many participants oppose this, arguing that it isn’t a circular solution. Legislation should make “good plastic packaging cheaper than bad packaging.”

- There was a lot of debate around the need (or lack thereof) to invest in chemical recycling. Many speakers called for more research, e.g. life-cycle assessments (LCA) and mass-balance calculations of carbon emissions very early on to avoid major unintended negative consequences at a later stage. The majority agreed that chemical recycling is needed as complementary to mechanical recycling. This could help solve the growing number of challenges in mechanical recycling, e.g. the mushrooming of new plastic materials, more chemicals being used in plastics, and some (non-packaging) products getting smaller and difficult to separate. Reintroducing oil as virgin feedstock would eliminate some constraints in boosting recycling and recycled-content rates. The technology is still at the development stage, so another five to ten years might be needed before we witness a mass roll-out. There are questions related to scale, technology, and costs that must be answered, next to the environmental questions.

Sustainability: To Pay or Not To Pay

Today you can’t say ‘plastic packaging’ without ‘sustainability’ in the same breath. Ipsos and Innovation Forum researched consumers’ expectations of sustainability in France, the UK, and the US and concluded for packaging:

- 61% of respondents claim to be willing to pay more for recyclable/compostable packaging.
- 72% want to buy sustainable products as much as possible, although only 38% are willing to stop buying non-recyclable goods.
- 82% are concerned about the ‘non-recyclability’ of plastics.
- 80% agree that manufacturers should help recycle and reuse the packaging they use.
- 52% believe that cost is the highest barrier to change. Knowledge is the second largest barrier.
- What do consumers consider sustainable packaging? Recyclable, primarily, then reusable.

Although consumers claim to be willing to pay for sustainable packaging, the reality is different for many brands. One major retailer in Scandinavia, for example, has experienced severe pressure from consumers for more sustainable options, but consumers will not buy products in a slightly more expensive package. In general, consumers remain highly price sensitive and still want convenience. Therefore, any substitute packaging must address these factors too. One brand noted that the company so far is absorbing the additional cost of sustainable packaging. This acts as a strong driver to redesign products to save materials and costs. Furthermore, it’s crucial for peers to convey the same message. For example, consumers lose trust when one retailer proclaims it uses bio-based packaging while the competitor avoids it, if both cite sustainability. Therefore, Danish retailers have established a common forum to arrive at combined principles for plastics.

Collaboration: Avoid Stranded Assets

Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost every participant called for collaboration in a systematic approach, as it is considered vital to handle the challenge. Collaboration is needed not only for materials, but also for chemicals that stay in the system and obstruct recycling initiatives. Collaboration is essential to reduce the complexity of packaging and to develop simple solutions with a focus on a couple of types of plastics. No single part of the chain can develop a solution in isolation that fits all. Investors, in particular, were stressing the need to cooperate. There will be winners and losers, due to sustainable-packaging requirements. New business models and reporting needs will arise, and supply chains will change. Collaboration is thus crucial to avoid unnecessary investments and ‘stranded assets’.

Experience shows that the biggest challenge is building trust between competitors and actors across the plastic value chain, so it’s crucial to demonstrate transparency. It is also crucial to acknowledge that it will be costly to make changes, but it was agreed that it will be even more costly to switch at a later stage. Don’t waste time. Start engaging right away.

Click here to download this article as a PDF file

The conference was held under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that no information received can be explicitly attributed to any company or person in attendance.