The business world has begun to realize the environmental and economic benefits of eliminating waste — for example, by redesigning products and processes or finding new life for existing products and materials post-use. This shift is laying the groundwork essential for building a global circular economy.
Even as momentum builds across industries, I’m particularly inspired by the change being pursued by some of those most responsible for the waste.
Dozens of the world’s biggest consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, including The Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble [P&G] and Unilever, have joined forces and are now signed on to at least one — if not multiple — coalitions, task forces or partnerships dedicated to eliminating the glut of plastic clogging up our landfills and oceans, much of which is from product packaging.
Many of the initiatives revolve around companies finally holding themselves accountable for their packaging waste in a variety of ways, such as increasing the use of recyclable materials.
Cleaning Up Our Mess
A number of efforts are emerging to enable recovery and reuse of the mountains of plastic waste that already exist. A coalition of companies including Dell, General Motors, HP Inc, Interface and IKEA, under the name NextWave Plastics, has been working together to develop a global supply chain that redirects ocean-bound plastics for recycling into their products or packaging. And The Body Shop recently launched an initiative to build a supply of recovered plastics from India for recycling into new bottles for its products.
Last fall, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an advocacy organization for circular economy, announced the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. It rallied over 250 businesses, governments, NGOs and academic organizations to sign on, including companies representing 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally and over 70 well-known consumer brands. Businesses such as Apple, H&M, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal and Target are taking part and pledging to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging and create new packaging to be 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable.
Then, 29 giants from the chemical, plastics and CPG industries — including Chevron, Dow, Shell and Veolia — banded together and committed over $1 billion under the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to develop and scale solutions that will minimize plastic waste, promote solutions for used plastics, and help end plastic pollution in the environment.
While these public pledges feel promising, to date there has been little visibility into their progress. To address this, World Wildlife Fund just launched its new ReSource platform. Companies that want to join must publicly share data and progress on their plastic-reduction efforts, a requirement that holds them accountable and gives us the first real understanding of whether industry-wide progress is being made on tackling plastic pollution.
New technologies are also emerging to cut plastic pollution and move away from single-use plastic products. For example, Ioniqa has developed a process to convert PET (the most commonly used plastic polymer) from hard-to-recycle colored bottles and packs into transparent, virgin-grade material that can be used for food packaging. In February, IBM said it’s developed a chemical recycling process that can make PET out of mixed or contaminated waste that was previously unsuitable for reclaiming. The converted PET also is 100 recyclable, which will help to keep the material in the recycling chain and out of landfills. Another company with promising technology is Carbios, which has developed an enzymatic plastic-recycling technology that creates virgin-quality, recycled PET for use in bottles and other forms of packaging.
These initiatives and others are working to increase the availability of high-quality, recycled plastics in the market — removing one of the barriers to companies meeting their sustainability commitments and potentially preventing some of the damaging effects of plastic pollution on the environment.
A New Packaging Model
One of my favorite new initiatives is Loop, an online shopping platform through which dozens of trusted food, cleaning and personal care brands — including Haagen-Dazs, Clorox, Dove, Evian and Gillette — will ditch disposable plastic packaging for hundreds of their most popular products, in favor of durable packaging that is collected, cleaned and refilled after use.
Loop was announced in January by recycling specialist TerraCycle, whose CEO Tom Szaky recently said: “Plastic is not the evil. The evil is using something once.” Pilots launched this week in the northeastern United States, with Kroger and Walgreens as new partners, and in Paris, with another planned later this year in the United Kingdom. With any luck, this new approach to product packaging will catch on and become a new normal for many of our everyday products.
While the near-constant stream of new strategies to tackle our plastic pollution problem is exciting, they will all take time to produce results. And all of the pledges in the world won’t get companies off the hook in the meantime. NGOs such as Greenpeace have started calling out these big consumer brands — many of whom are now front and center on these efforts to overhaul the system — for the damage their products and packaging are causing to the environment. The nonprofit Story of Stuff Project is in the midst of massive “brand audit cleanups” to collect plastic waste in coastal and inland communities across the U.S. and identify the companies behind that trash, the results of which will be made public in October.
Witnessing large companies commit to taking a more comprehensive approach to reducing waste gives me hope that achieving a circular economy is possible ― but they’re only getting started. We need much more collaboration, innovation and accountability to accelerate this progress and make the seismic change necessary.