When it comes to eliminating plastics from the global supply chain, tomorrow is always just over the horizon. But thinking about the problem this way commits the error of imagining it as a huge goal – the attainment of some distant utopia. It also overlooks the many measures that can be taken to mitigate our level of reliance on plastics in the here and now.
According to Material Economics, a management consultancy specialising in sustainability, 25% of plastics used in packaging in Europe could be replaced with renewable alternatives without significant compromise on functionality. There is also the burgeoning possibility of shifting away from fossil-based plastics to bio-based alternatives at scale.
“One hundred percent plastic-free is a brand promise that is easy to deliver for packaging consumer products like dried foods, fresh produce or e-commerce goods,” says Tiina Pursula, vice president for sustainability of packaging materials at Stora Enso, which produces wood and biomass-based packaging solutions and is one of the largest private forest owners in the world. However, she adds: “When it comes to, for example, the packaging of liquids, chilled and frozen foods, 100% plastic-free is harder to achieve.” She offers the example of a milk carton, of which about 85% is typically made from paper-based board while the remaining 15% is plastic, usually the liquid barrier.
“Going from 100% to just 15% or less of oil-based plastic in packaging is definitely a very positive step – and even the barrier layer can be made from sustainable bio-based sources and be recycled,” she says.
Perhaps it makes more sense, then, to ask not what would it take to eliminate plastics from supply chains, but to instead ask in what contexts does it make sense to replace plastics with alternative materials?
In the example of the milk carton, if the goal is for the carton to be recyclable in as many countries as possible (the rate of recycling for paper and cardboard packaging in the EU is over 85% – the highest rate among all materials collected) and for it to be made from renewable materials, then moving to 100% paper or card-based packaging seems a sensible direction of travel. When it comes to the plastic barrier layer being recyclable, this won’t yet be the case in all geographies due to a lack of suitable plastic recycling infrastructure. Yet, for now, the bulk of the packaging, the paperboard, is recyclable – which reduces the environmental and carbon footprints of the product. “When designing supply chains, decisions should be guided by complete lifecycles and circular design,” says Pursula. This basically means designing a product to be made from as many renewable materials as possible, ensuring those materials can be easily recycled at the end of the product’s use. Or to put it simply, as Pursula says: “Designing products and packaging for the from start to end.”
Meanwhile, Pursula points out that packaging cannot deliver any sustainability benefits if the packaged goods end up in landfill because they haven’t been adequately protected. “For packaging goods, consumer safety and product protection is key,” she says.
When pursuing the removal or reduction of plastic from business supply chains, context is vitally important, as is collaboration across all actors from the business value chain. “What I’m finding really interesting at the moment is how companies at different tiers of the supply chain are starting to collaborate more,” says Liz Holford, a sustainability consultant who advises businesses on procurement strategies. She uses an example from the construction sector. “Typically, and historically, materials have arrived on construction sites wrapped up in lots of single-use plastics. [But increasingly], the construction companies and the material providers are collaborating and saying how can we do things differently so that we don’t have to use all that single-use plastic?”
Pursula, likewise, is seeing a commitment from industry to address the issues surrounding the sustainability of plastics. “It is clear that there is a commitment in the entire packaging value chain to help make the transition, and the coalitions and value chain collaborations and alliances support the journey from a fossil economy to a circular bioeconomy,” she says.
Holford mentions that policy drivers such as plastic taxes could potentially be playing a part in this shift as well. The EU has announced a tax on non-recyclable plastics used by companies, set to come into force in January 2021.
In terms of the fibre-based packaging industry, Pursula cites 4evergreen as a sign of its commitment to sustainability. This is a forum established by Cepi, a European association representing the paper industry, which aims to engage producers, brand owners, retailers and recyclers in contributing to a circular economy by prioritising design for recycling.
Removing plastic from supply chains therefore cannot happen in isolation. It requires new levels of cooperation throughout value chains, and different combinations of solutions and help from public policy. As for eliminating plastic, Mogens Hinge, an associate professor in the department of engineering at Aarhus University in Denmark, notes that it ultimately depends on the timeframe we’re looking at. “With an infinite amount of time and infinite resources, and under the assumption that humankind will survive long enough, then, of course, everything is possible,” he says.
Who to talk to? Visit storaenso.com/who-to-talk-to to find out