Plastic pollution is a pervasive global problem. In the European Union, regulators hope to transform the linear structure of resource consumption into a circular system. Policy statements highlight the importance of increased recycling rates in the transition towards a circular model that would keep plastic in the economy and out of the environment. The bloc’s circular economy plan, adopted in 2020, has set the target for all packaging on the EU market to be ‘reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030’.
Yet recycling rates remain stubbornly low. According to a recent report from the OECD, only 9% of the plastic produced today is successfully recycled.
Flexible packaging – commonly used in the food sector – presents a particular problem to existing recycling infrastructure due to the high cost of collecting, sorting and recycling this lightweight (and often multi-layered) plastic. From chip bags to chocolate wrappers, pouches and films, flexible food packaging is a predominant microplastic waste stream that poses a unique challenge.
But while flexible packaging is clearly linked to negative environmental consequences, the material also offers a number of benefits. It is highly efficient and lightweight – meaning that carbon emissions are minimised while product protection, preservation and quality are assured.
For the food industry, then, the preferred approach is to minimise the use of flexible packaging – switching from virgin to recycled content – while maximising recycling rates and preventing environmental leakage. And today five of the largest food companies in Europe – Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever – revealed they have joined forces in support of a circular economy for flexible packaging.
Announcing the Flexible Packaging Initiative, the companies said that this should be built on the principles of ‘resource efficiency, prevention of waste and pollution, and lowering the overall environmental impact of the packaging’.
Addressing landscape issues collectively
Individually, each of these companies are working on their own agendas to address flexible plastics in their supply chain. Various approaches include reviewing packaging design to reduce materials used, improving recyclability and increasing the use of recycled and renewable content in packs. PepsiCo, for instance, recently vowed to cut virgin plastic from its chip bags by 2030.
Some of this work is viewed as competitive and large brand owners carefully protect their R&D investments in the packaging space. However, where landscape issues need to be addressed there is a widespread recognition that efforts to tackle the problem will be more effective if addressed pre-competitively.
“Reducing packaging is important to all of us,” Unilever President, Foods & Refreshment Hanneke Faber observed. “It does requite efforts by all of us individually, but it also requires infrastructure.”
Speaking at The Hive, Unilever’s innovation hub in Wageningen, Faber told FoodNavigator: “We are working with our competitors and EU/UK governments to standardise recycling infrastructure. The pact is going to be part of that work.”
Policy levers to lift recycling rates
To support higher recycling rates, the five companies said that they will work with partners through the Initiative to improve infrastructure. They plan to ‘go beyond’ individual packaging design efforts by providing ‘concrete proposals’ to enable effective collection, improved sorting and innovative recycling of flexible packaging across Europe. So what would this look like?
Firstly, the initiative wants to see changes to policy that incentivise circularity. These range from ‘more ambitious’ recycling targets, to a ban on landfill and ‘minimum’ incineration for recyclable packaging. “Participating companies actively calls upon the European Commission and national governments to enact policy changes designed to incentivise circularity for packaging materials, including increasingly ambitious and specific recycling targets for all packaging material types, bans on landfill and reduction of incineration to an absolute minimum, in a harmonised manner across all EU Member States,” they said.
Maximised collection was also identified as an action area, with work to improve consumer awareness, ‘mandatory’ collection of flexible packaging and ‘harmonised’ packaging disposal instructions suggested.
“The companies believe mandatory collection of all flexible packaging in Europe would help ensure materials are not discarded in the environment, guarantee sufficient volumes for recycling and avoid incineration,” they suggested.
Mandatory collection of all flexible packaging should be introduced as quickly and widely as possible they urged, suggesting its inclusion in the upcoming revisions of EU packaging and waste legislation. “Companies participating in the Initiative call upon the European Commission and national governments for a European-wide simplification and harmonization of disposal instructions to consumers to support the collection of flexible packaging, improve sorting and enable consumers to support the transition toward a circular economy for flexible packaging through small actions,” the stated.
EPR payments need to be invested in flexible packaging
The companies also want to see a return on the investments they are making through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes in the area of flexible packaging. Waste management actors need to ‘co-pilot circularity for flexibles’ leading to better sorting and increased recycling, they suggested.
“EPR-schemes need to stimulate structural improvements on collecting, sorting, recycling and developing end-markets for recycled material, working with partners across the value chain and (local) governments.
“EPR-schemes and businesses across the value chain, such as the waste management-sector, should increase investments in sorting to allow flexible packaging to be recycled. Through improved sorting, cleaner and more valuable feedstock can be provided to recyclers, which will enable more flexible packaging to be recycled into high value recyclates,” the initiative participants claimed.
They acknowledged that investment from waste management companies in recycling technology and innovation requires both regulatory and investment ‘predictability’.
“Innovation offers environmental benefits, avoids downcycling and provides a solid business case for a sustainable future,” they argued. “At the same time, packaging producers and the FMCG-sector should be incentivised to use recycled and renewable materials through a combination of regulatory and voluntary initiatives. As advanced recycling is recognised as one solution to improve full circularity of flexible packaging, the companies advocate for more supportive European regulations that swiftly provide increased legal clarity and investment certainty.”
The five companies want to see improved transparency on the use of EPR fees and reporting methodologies to ensure that industry’s commitment to the circularity of flexible packaging is not ‘lost to the benefit of other types of packaging’. “EPR fees paid for flexible packaging need to be specifically used to stimulate increased circularity of flexible packaging and high-quality output, which in return should lead to more investments for recycling flexibles.”
Investing in circular packaging design
Alongside their EPR fees, the companies plan to invest in scaling up ‘promising complementary technologies’ that will contribute to the circularity of flexible packaging.
They stressed they would support policies to improve consumer awareness through the provision of on-pack, in-store and online information.
“Participating companies are committed to increase investments in circular packaging design, in new sorting and recycling technologies and through eco-modulated EPR fees, as multiple approaches are required to ensure more flexible packaging is processed through improved infrastructure,” they said.
“The scale and magnitude of the transition requires action from companies, policy makers, experts, academics and societal organisations. The Initiative wishes to step up the collaboration across the packaging value chain, with EPR-schemes and with EU and local governments, to support the implementation of these changes rapidly.”