Plastics and packaging – how to drive positive change

By Mark Lancelott, PA Consulting
Plastic has always had an important role in maintaining safety standards in food packaging and medical applications and can reduce carbon emissions as i...

Plastic has always had an important role in maintaining safety standards in food packaging and medical applications and can reduce carbon emissions as it’s lighter and more durable than glass. However, the use and abuse of single-use plastic has reached a critical point. The world has woken up to its impact on the environment, and organisations, legislators and investors are now responding. 


Consumers want brands to make the plastics issue easy

PA Consulting’s research report ‘Sustainable Innovation in Plastics and Packaging’ found that consumers expect brands to take care of the plastics challenge for them. Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are making sustainability a top priority but many are still struggling to understand how customers’ feelings about plastic translate into what they will buy, particularly when sustainable alternatives are more expensive. They are also finding it a challenge to communicate what they are doing in a simple way.


Legislation and investors are demanding action 

In addition, CPG companies are having to deal with new legislation designed to encourage enhanced extended producer responsibility (EPR). EPR requires companies to understand and improve their supply chains to actively reduce their negative impact and was reflected in the European Parliament’s vote to ban some single-use plastics in EU member states by 2021. 

Investors too have an increasing awareness of the challenges and opportunities. We are seeing financial services companies helping sustainable businesses seeking to make positive change, targeting investment and financing solutions, and developing new products and services for investors. They are also reviewing their investment and asset management strategies to understand the longer-term risks and opportunities in their investment portfolios. 

Governments are also looking for solutions to the complex system-wide challenge of deposit return schemes. For example, the UK Government funds organisations such as Innovate UK, UK Circular Plastics Network (UKCPN), and Plastic Research and Innovation Fund (PRIF) to drive innovation and collaboration in this area. 


Disruptive technologies are enabling sustainability efforts

Technology will certainly play a critical role in addressing the plastics challenge and the market for innovative technology coming from startups, academia and suppliers is thriving. Many large organisations are embracing disruptors to accelerate their sustainability agenda.

Technologies like blockchain, for example, can show the end-to-end impact of recycled and alternative materials by tracking their full lifecycle, and a combination of disruptive technologies, such as AI, machine learning and robotics can help optimise production lines to zero waste.  However, there are still challenges around providing sterile alternatives to plastic and really understanding what will drive sustainability.


Three approaches for a positive change

During our research, we spoke to leaders in some of the world’s top CPGs, and found they were taking one of the following approaches: less plastic, better plastic, or no plastic.

The less plastic strategy is a gradual one that scales back the use of plastics through changing packaging design and formats in order to reduce or thin-out elements of the packaging. Mondelēz, the owner of Cadbury’s, adopted this approach and, in 2014, they committed to reduce the weight of packaging by 65,000 tonnes per year and are on track to achieve this by 2020.

The better plastic strategy looks to improve recyclability or reuse by reducing contaminants or adding durability. Coca Cola have done this in the UK’s first bottle-to-bottle reprocessing plant which now generates a quarter of plastic content in all new bottles through recycling and, by the end of 2019, Coca Cola’s Smartwater brand will only use recycled plastic.


The no plastic approach adopts alternatives to plastic that can do a similar job, such as wood pulp, alginate, glass, metal and hemp. A startup, Notpla, has created an edible and biodegradable material from seaweed to replace plastic bottles which was used at the London Marathon. While these can be seen as positive actions, companies need to be certain that by eliminating one sustainability problem they don’t have a detrimental impact on other areas. For example, using heavier materials will increase energy and emissions during transportation.

Beyond this, some organisations want to go further than doing less harm and have a positive influence on the environment. One example of this is Covestro, an advanced polymers manufacturer which set a target to align 80% of its R&D work to Sustainable Development Goals by 2025 and create innovative materials that sequester CO2 out of the atmosphere.  

While consumers tend to want ‘no plastic’ to be the priority, the reality is that organisations need to blend all approaches to maximise value. For example, it might make sense for a supermarket to use better, fully recycled and recyclable plastic to protect fresh vegetables on the shelves in order to prevent food waste, while replacing plastic crates with wooden ones in distribution. Mondelēz has adopted this blended approach, building on the success of its ‘less plastic’ strategy to announce a move to 100% recycled packaging by 2025. 


Three steps to implement a positive approach

Our experience of helping organisations become more sustainable, and our work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN Global Compact, has shown that there are three steps to successfully implementing a less, better, or no plastic strategy.

The first is to build a business case based on an understanding that sustainability should not be a cost to business, but a driver of value. Making that clear to all stakeholders is crucial to achieving long-term success, underpinned by an assessment of customer sentiment to identify areas of growth and how to meet their needs. That then needs to be supported by the long-term investment cost against the savings from adapting materials and processes.

The next step is to work out whether to set incremental goals to maintain momentum or take bolder action. Both approaches can work, and organisations need to decide which is right for their particular needs. 

Finally, they should embrace the disruptors. Many innovations – in new materials and business models – are coming from startups and the challenge is to understand what is hype and what is real when deciding who to work with. They also need to reassess their own processes and ways of working to ensure they can make effective use of these innovators.

What is clear is that the combination of demand from consumers and regulators, supported by advances in technology and adoption of circular business models, is creating an unprecedented opportunity to innovate for sustainability, and tackle the plastics and packaging challenge.


Mark Lancelott is the sustainability lead at PA Consulting, the global innovation and transformation consultancy

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