Lead the charge22 September 2020
With the world stumbling to a crisis point in its flagrant use of plastic, especially single-use, a drastic change in direction is needed. Multinationals are leading the way in innovating new materials, setting industry targets, finessing the process and efficiency of recycling, and tweaking consumer behaviour. John Fortune examines how companies like Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Hasbro are attempting this mammoth task.
Before the ever-unfolding impact of Covid-19, the major industry topic in recent years has been the environmental impact of packaging. Opinion has concerned itself with ways to moderate and reduce waste – in manufacturing and post-use disposal.
Major brands have been working tirelessly on this subject, and Nestlé, as one of the biggest, is no exception. According to a press statement released last year from the corporation, “From the oceans to the deserts, the world depends on our ability to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste. It depends on our ability to create a world in the very near future where every single piece of packaging is recyclable or reusable. And it depends on our ability to create a world where rubbish isn’t sent to landfill, but is turned into something new.”
It came as part of a new commitment on the part of Nestlé to improve the environmental performance of packaging, aimed at cutting pollution from plastic packaging waste. The company has set a goal of 100%-recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025.
The company has reacted to the sad reality that around 10 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans, rivers and waterways every year. Although plastic packaging is vital for keeping food safe and fresh, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure less is used, that what is used is fully recyclable, and that recycling systems are available around the world.
Xavier Caro, who works on developing new packaging materials at Nestlé’s Product Technology Centre in Germany, explained in an article on Nestlé’s website, “I start by asking if packaging for a product is absolutely necessary. If yes, I then consider all options for reuse or recycling.”
Packaging itself is vital. From protecting food from damage, germs, pests or contamination in transit, to providing vital nutritional information, ingredients and serving – all of this stems from the package. However, new technologies and innovation means there are more environmental options available, allowing the move from a single-use product, which ultimately ends in landfill, to a new material that can be reduced, reused, upcyled or recycled – and does not leave a mess.
For Nestlé, each time a new prototype for packaging is made, it’s tested to see how easy and convenient it is for customers to use and store. But, if environmental performance is not better than the original version, it will not be used. “We go back to the beginning and try something else,” Caro said.
“I start by asking if packaging for a product is absolutely necessary. If yes, I then consider all options for reuse or recycling.”
But developing new packaging that is environmentally friendly and fully recyclable is only part of Caro’s challenge. “It’s not good enough just to design the pack and make it recyclable,” he continued. “It is important to establish how this packaging will be collected and recycled too.”
In Europe that is a straightforward process, he explained, because companies can work alongside established recycling schemes. But in developing areas, the company needs to work with local partners to ensure recycling is a reality rather than a possibility.
Nestlé is a participant in the New Plastics Economy, which advises developing countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where marine litter is a significant problem – especially single-use. The initiative, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, aims to rethink the future of plastics by applying the principles of the circular economy. It brings together key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging.
One recent example of alternate materials being deployed to reduce plastic dependency occurred last year, when Nestlé announced the launch of its YES! snack bars in a new recyclable paper wrapper. In a breakthrough innovation, a confectionery bar has been packaged in paper using high-speed flow wrap.
This launch unlocked the potential for recyclable paper packaging to be widely used in the confectionery industry. Until then, high-speed production of shelfstable snacks was only achieved using plastic films and laminates. Now, paper can be used at large scale while guaranteeing product quality and freshness over the entire shelf life. The paper is also from sustainable sources, and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.
Patrice Bula, head of strategic business units, marketing and sales at Nestlé, said in the accompanying press statement: “Consumers are looking for more natural and sustainable options when they choose a snack, both in terms of ingredients and packaging. We are now relaunching them carefully wrapped in paper, making the packaging easy to recycle, and avoiding plastic waste.”
The multinational’s commitment is to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, while reducing the use of virgin plastics by a third in the same time frame. A vision set out in January this year stated, “We will… [be] leading the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics, while accelerating the development of innovative packaging solutions. We are determined to look at every option to solve complex packaging challenges and embrace multiple solutions that can have an impact now.”
These solutions include introducing new delivery systems and innovative business models – like reusable or refill systems – to reduce its use of single-use plastics, and using recyclable paper-based materials and compostable packaging where plastics recycling is not a viable option.
It is also pioneering alternative materials: the company announced earlier this year that it would invest up to £1.66 billion to lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics, and is looking to accelerate the development of innovative, sustainable packaging. And it will launch a sustainable packaging venture fund that focuses on start-up companies that are developing innovative packaging solutions. This is to be called the Nestlé Institute for Packaging Sciences, and will be set up to develop sustainable packaging materials and collaborate with industry partners to scale-up research and innovation.
Through the institute, Nestlé is currently exploring a range of innovations, including new paper-based materials, as well as biodegradable/compostable polymers that are also recyclable. The programme indicates the seriousness for which the corporation is willing to take responsibility for its own impact. It’s exactly the type of drive the industry, and the planet, needs.
It’s not just fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers that are aware of the need to dramatically reduce and ultimately remove plastic waste. Another major brand concerned with innovative ways to be environmentally conscious, as well as delivering top-class packaging, is Procter & Gamble. Its Tide Eco-Box, a carton that can efficiently hold and withdraw liquid products like juice and wine, was a finalist in the Packaging Innovations Awards last year.
The Eco-Box comes to customers in a sealed, shipping-safe cardboard box that also acts as a primary container in-use. Inside the box is a sealed bag of ultra-compacted Tide liquid laundry detergent. To use, consumers peel off the cardboard flap to reveal a dosing cup and a ‘no-drip’ tap. To make dosing simpler on flat surfaces, the box includes a pull-out stand to raise the height of the box so the cup fits easily beneath the tap.
What makes this packaging so relevant in this current era is its dramatic impact on volume, reducing unnecessary waste and, therefore, greenhouse-gas emissions. By removing the need for bagging, wrapping, taping and over-boxing, plastic-use can be decreased by a significant amount. Where previous developments might focus on incremental change, Procter & Gamble have found a way to make a seismic difference in packaging, removing plastic and replacing with paper at the same time.
Meanwhile, Hasbro has announced that, beginning in 2020, it plans to begin phasing out plastic from new product packaging, including plastic elements like polybags, elastic bands, shrink-wrap, window sheets and blister packs. The company’s ambition is to eliminate virtually all plastic in packaging for new products by the end of 2022.
“Removing plastic from our packaging is the latest advancement in our more than decade-long journey to create a more sustainable future for our business and our world,” said Brian Goldner, chairman and CEO at Hasbro, in a press release. “We have an experienced, cross-functional team in place to manage this undertaking, and will look to actively engage employees, customers and partners as we continue to innovate and drive progress as a leader in sustainability.”
“Reimagining and redesigning packaging across our brand portfolio is a complex undertaking, but we believe it’s important and our teams are up for the challenge,” commented John Frascotti, Hasbro’s president and COO. “We know consumers share our commitment to protecting the environment, and we want families to feel good knowing that our packaging will be virtually plastic-free, and our products can be easily recycled through our Toy Recycling programme with TerraCycle.”
That programme enables consumers to send wellloved Hasbro toys and games to TerraCycle, a global leader in product recycling, which recycles them into materials to be used in the construction of play spaces, flowerpots, park benches and other uses.
For all stakeholders in the packaging value chain, the common denominator is a willingness to change, and an understanding that change is required. While there may be differences in how that change should be implemented – for example, defining what responsibility lies with whom at each stage of the circular economy’s value chain – we can all agree that standing still is not an option. By choosing responsibly, sustainable packaging made from substrates that meet the changing demands of the world’s leading brands, as well as the expectations of conscientious consumers, the packaging industry can truly become part of the paper solution.