The realities of rethinking plastic packaging
Sonoco and Walmart discuss their considerations around plastic packaging and the potential consequences of using alternative materials.
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you, just one word … Plastics.
Benjamin Braddock: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Benjamin Braddock: Yes I will.
There’s no doubt the great future of plastics from "The Graduate" came to fruition. But the material isn't always being managed correctly, 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rate is due to a variety of reasons, including consumers lacking awareness of where and how to recycle, as well as an outdated collection and processing infrastructure.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 used includes recycled content or is widely accepted for recycling.
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 in an effort 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 that 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.
"In a world without plastic, in five years we’re talking deforestation."
Global Sustainability Manager of Consumer Packaging, Sonoco Products
Before Sonoco created goals to reduce or eliminate wasted plastic, the company 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, 19% of which 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 tactic 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 bags, replacing 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 expanded polystyrene foam trays holding fresh meat with recyclable PET trays. The company is also eliminating non-recyclable plastic pouches from its tea packages and replacing flower bouquet packaging 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 about their goals and what they're packaging, and then presents the options. Reducing wasted plastic is part of the sustainability framework, she said — 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 also 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 — which aren't recyclable and can also render the PET bottles unrecyclable — from PET bottles. 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 in order to bring them in line with the 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, but a growing amount comes from agricultural products, such as sugar beets and corn. And while swapping conventional plastics for bio-based plastics may seem like a sustainable move, 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: 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 actually 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."
"It’s not that plastic is bad and everything else is good."
Global Sustainability Manager of Consumer Packaging, Sonoco Products
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 such as 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 come from recycled fibers or from forests. "In a world without plastic, in five years we're talking deforestation," said Rowell. Even collecting and using a significant amount of recycled 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, she noted — 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 affect 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 lessen that impact as much as possible.
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