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The realities of rethinking plastic packaging

Manufacturers must consider the product and consequences of alternative
materials when making decisions about plastic packaging.

There’s no
doubt the great future of plastics from “The Graduate” came to
fruition. Landfills are overflowing with plastics, with more than 8 million
tons of plastic dumped into oceans annually, according to 
Plastic
Oceans International
.

Packaging
makes up more than 40% of the world’s total plastic usage, yet less than
14% of plastic packaging is recycled globally, 
according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The low rate is due to a variety of reasons, including
consumers lacking awareness of where and how to recycle, and a weak collection
and processing infrastructure.

Many large
retailers and manufacturers are ramping up their sustainability efforts by
decreasing plastic use for packaging or ensuring the plastic is at least recyclable
and recycled. 
This
doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating plastic in their supply chains. “We
don’t see a world without plastic. We focus on a world without packaging waste
in our lands and oceans,” Laura Rowell, global sustainability manager
of consumer packaging at Sonoco Products, told Supply Chain Dive. Sonoco
manufactures consumer goods packaging, including paper, plastic and film.

Walmart announced
its latest plans in February, to target its private brand packaging to reduce
plastic waste, affecting more than 30,000 SKUs in the retailer’s
inventory. 
Trader Joe’s announced
in December it would reduce plastic packaging in stores, even while noting
“most of the plastic in our packaging has the highest recyclability acceptance
rate in the U.S.”

How
to set goals for plastic reduction
More than
250 companies signed on to the goals set forth by the 
New
Plastics Economy
 vision
from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes eliminating unnecessary and
problematic plastic use, innovating plastic materials so they can be reused and
recycled and keeping plastic out of the environment.

 One goal is to make
plastic packaging 100% recyclable or compostable by 2025. The companies who
signed on represent 20% of the plastic packaging produced globally, including
Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Danone and Unilever.

Walmart
encourages all suppliers to set goals and follow the steps in its 
sustainable packaging playbook, where it provides guidance and best practices on
designing recyclable packaging.

Before
Sonoco created goals to reduce or eliminate wasted plastic, the company first
looked at its current practices. “Recycling and use of recycled material
are significant means of reducing wasted plastic,” Rowell said. 
It
currently uses 22% recycled plastic in its manufacturing operations, and 19% of
that is post-consumer plastic.

Sonoco
deliberated how to improve that figure, considering a significant percentage of
its packaging has direct food contact. The company created options for the
R&D team to pursue. One tact was to improve the recyclability and
collection of thermoform produce packaging. 

Trader
Joe’s is evaluating its packaging through its sustainability framework, which
includes reducing and removing packaging; sourcing renewable and recycled packaging
materials; choosing packaging that can be realistically recycled; and avoiding
the use of harmful substances in packaging.

Trader
Joe’s stopped offering customers single-use plastic carryout bags and replaced
plastic produce bags with biodegradable and compostable bags for its loose
fruits and vegetables. 
The grocer is decreasing the number of produce items
sold in plastic bags and replacing Styrofoam trays holding fresh meat with
recyclable PET trays. 

The company is also eliminating the non-recyclable
plastic pouches from its tea packages and replacing the flower bags with a
“renewable material.”

Consider
the product, the package — and even the label
When
talking with customers about how to design their packaging, manufacturers have
to consider the product. “Consumers don’t buy a cereal box. They buy the
cereal,” Rowell said. Sonoco asks customers what they are packaging
and their goals and then presents the options. 

Reducing wasted plastic is part
of the sustainability framework, but it’s important to maintain product
integrity and prevent food waste.  

Walmart
identifies the most common types of packaging for its private label brands and
considers what’s feasible in terms of potential recycled content and what their
competitors are doing, Ashley C. Hall, senior manager of sustainability at
Walmart, told Supply Chain Dive. 
That sometimes means stepping back to consider
the packaging without the product in it. PET bottles aren’t just used for
water, juice and soda, but can be used with pumpable soap, cleaning spray and
mouthwash.

“There
can be very small design changes,” Hall said, like 
eliminating a plastic window in a package, which won’t affect sales but will
reduce plastic use. Companies should also ask packaging suppliers how much
recycled content they’re already using, as they may not realize they already
are using some.

Walmart’s
playbook shares ideas on packaging changes that can reduce plastic use, like
removing shrink-wrap sleeves from PET bottles, as the shrink-wrap isn’t
recyclable, rendering the PET bottles not recyclable. The playbook suggests
removing metal, PVC and other materials that make an otherwise recyclable bottle
ineligible.

To maximize
effective recycling, even the packaging labels should be evaluated. Sonoco
works with customers to improve the package labeling to bring them in line with
Association of Plastic Recyclers (
APR)-recognized inks, labels and adhesives — ones that have been proven to not
contaminate the PET recycling stream. 
The label ink can discolor the plastic
during recycling, affecting how people perceive the plastic used in packaging
food, said Rowell. The APR has label protocols, and companies can ask the label
supplier if they’ve been recognized as such.

A
different kind of plastic
Plastics
come from fossil fuels, and a growing number come from agricultural products,
like 
sugar beets and corn.
Swapping conventional plastics for bio-based plastics may seem like a
sustainable move. 
However, not all bio-plastics can be recycled in the
traditional recycling stream, as they cause problems at recycling centers due
to different melting temperatures.

Rowell said
her company is not fond of degradable plastics, as composters are reluctant to
take any plastic to their composting streams, and Sonoco doesn’t want to
mislead consumers into thinking they are recycling, when the items end up in
the dump. “It doesn’t work for us to say it’s compostable if we know for a
fact it won’t get composted.”

Many
corporate efforts revolve around decreasing single-use plastic items made from
virgin plastic, which has not been recycled.

Recycled
plastic tends to be more expensive than virgin plastic, said Rowell, as the recycled
material has to be collected, processed and sanitized for safe use. That said,
there’s an increased commitment by many brands to use recycled plastic,
regardless of the higher costs.

Contrast
that with infrastructure improvements to remove wasted plastic from the
environment, and there’s a big difference. “Remember that most
developing countries are not blessed with recycling systems, waste-to-energy
facilities and landfills. Much of their waste goes into the
environment,” Rowell said.

Plastic
substitutes: It’s not as simple as good or bad
Packaging
material substitutions are sometimes possible, but all materials have
environmental issues, said Rowell. “It’s not that plastic is bad and
everything else is good,” she said. 

Materials like glass, paper,
steel and aluminum for consumer products are heavy and must be balanced with
other needs. “We can turn everything that uses flexible film into
paperboard, but it uses a lot more fiber and it’s a lot heavier,” she
said.

Paper can
be from recycled fibers or from forests. “In a world without plastic, in
five years we’re talking deforestation,” said Rowell. Even if
collecting and using a significant amount of recycled paper, that paper can’t
supply the world’s needs, she said. And not all countries can grow their own
fiber.

Glass is a
great material as well, Rowell said, but “you don’t want glass shampoo
bottles.”

Plastic use
does not need to be eliminated to help the environment. It offers value and
decreases food waste. “Studies show that the shelf life of fresh produce
can be significantly lengthened by the use of minimal plastic film
protection,” said Rowell. 

Food production is energy, land and water
dependent, so eliminating or decreasing plastic use must be weighed against
those resources. Methane from rotting food can impact the climate as well, said
Rowell, and plastic use can help decrease that food waste. 
“I’ve
never seen a perfect environmental package,” Rowell said. “By
living, we impact the environment.” The goal is to impact the
environment the least amount possible.
Supply Chain Dive.

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