With the uptick in consumers pressure and NGO’s calls to action to ban single use plastics, more packaging companies, brands and retailers are making bold commitments to rethink their material use for a circular economy. But some businesses seeking to reduce the plastic footprint of their products have set goals and signed pacts without consideration for the systemic impacts, including science-based targets and other sustainability goals. This can lead to conflicting priorities and ineffective action.
Eliminating plastic doesn’t always make sense from a carbon perspective.
Over the past couple of years, we have seen multinational consumer goods companies be bold with their plastic reduction pledges, a move that adm aims to support their clients with. However, we have also seen other sustainably minded conglomerates such as Unilever adopting a strategically steadfast approach. In the face of anti-plastic public sentiment, it announced that plastic in fact aids their commitment to a lower carbon footprint and that changing to another material is not the right choice…instead it is focusing on the reduction of virgin material.
Is there a silver bullet solution?
It is universally agreed that plastics can have a place in the supply chain. However, we need to innovate through solutions that not only optimize packaging through clever and streamlined design but also by using post-consumer recycled content where alternative materials don’t align with carbon reductions strategies. At adm this is integral to our packaging savings strategy which in 2020 is being rolled out across our global procurement hubs. Each of our products’ packaging is assessed on a case by case basis to ensure that a knee jerk plastic packaging removal will not have a detrimental impact further down the value chain with the product being damaged in transit due to poor packaging and therefore entirely wasted.
At this year’s GreenBiz Summit in Arizona, Nina Goodrich, Director of the Sustainable Packaging Consortium raised the point, which I think can be felt at adm, at the panic amongst the marketing community to try and figure out how to navigate this complex dichotomy of pros and cons in moving away from plastic entirely – often at the risk of increasing carbon emissions.
As both consumer and client demands increase for that ‘silver bullet’ biodegradable and biobased plastic, Debbie Hitchen, Director of Sustainable Consumption and Production at Anthesis, a global sustainability activator, questioned: “Is it [biodegradable plastic] really better?” Plastic that is made from biobased resources, such as PLA manufactured from corn starch, is certainly better in regards to the raw material carbon footprint which is less than that of conventional plastic. However, crucially, the enormous challenge remains in end of life collection infrastructure which is currently immature and non-existent in some regions which is needed to compost the ‘biodegradable’ solutions efficiently.
If we are to introduce new materials into the waste disposal streams, are we doing more harm than good in contaminating the materials? It is vital to think strategically and holistically in our approach and advise clearly at all levels of the product’s life cycle.