When it comes to consumers and plastics, actions are changing as well as attitudes. Recent research suggests that 70 per cent of shoppers now look for less packaging. David Croft, RB's Global Director of Sustainability, examines what greater public awareness means for the fast-moving consumer goods industry
Since its first appearance in bottles 70 years ago, plastic has become ubiquitous as a packaging material. And while it has many useful properties – including its low cost, light weight and ability to keep contents safe from contamination – the disposal and longevity of plastic have rightly become cause for concern.
We’ve entered a new chapter in public awareness. Television programmes – such as Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, watched by more than 37 million UK viewers and attracted around 80 million viewers in China alone, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent BBC series War on Plastic – have helped move the conversation on. At the same time, governments around the world are taking increasingly strong action. India has pledged to eliminate single-use plastic in the country by 2022, and at a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Kenya earlier this year, 170 countries agreed to “significantly reduce” their use of plastics.
Overall, this means passive concern is out; reducing and replacing plastics is the new call to action. The challenge for companies, consumers and governments is to learn to use plastic efficiently, even minimally, and to deal with it effectively.
Consumers, challenges and change
To achieve lasting change, the whole plastics chain must be involved – from manufacturers of packaging materials to product and packaging designers, retailers, consumers, local authorities and the collection and recycling facilities, and the recyclers themselves. We can then contemplate a better system where as much as possible is reused again and again, reducing the problem of waste and offering the potential for a closed-loop system with different recycling streams.
Recent research by retail trade magazine The Grocer with PwC found lots to be optimistic about. For example, 70 per cent of consumers have changed their shopping habits and now look for less packaging. Consumers also like the idea of plant-based compostable plastic substitutes. And ocean safety has become a key issue thanks to high awareness of the problems that plastics cause to marine life.
But the survey also highlighted areas that still need work.
Although wealthier and younger shoppers are more engaged, two-in-five consumers won’t pay a premium for more sustainable packaging and 38 per cent won’t switch if it compromises the shelf-life of food. Also interesting is the fact that recycling is considered more important than reuse, with food manufacturers rather than retailers seen as being more responsible for change.
Small steps, big ambition
Without doubt, the idea that reuse is less vital than recycling will diminish as more manufacturers and retailers go down that route and consumers become accustomed to it. Waitrose has an interesting trial in Oxford, UK, where it is offering shoppers the choice of using refillable containers for pasta, rice and cereals. The results will be important and have already been positive enough to take the trial to more shops.
On their own, individual initiatives seem small but they represent big steps because they demonstrate how industry is looking at doing things differently to do things better. At the same time, companies such as RB are redoubling efforts to reduce, reuse, replace and recycle, all the while maintaining safety and affordability.
Last year, RB set out its commitments in its plastics statement. Our aim is for recycled material to make up at least 25 per cent of our global packaging content by 2025, and for 100 per cent of it to be recyclable or reusable, with easy-to-understand labels to help consumers.
We’re working with manufacturers to develop new materials that can be recycled more easily. And we’re drawing on the skill of designers to reduce the amount of plastic we use. For example, new triggers for our spray bottles mean we’ll use 570 million fewer tonnes of plastic every year. And our new pouch for Finish dishwasher powder now contains just one type of plastic, making it recyclable for the first time. We’ve also launched a Finish tub made of 30 per cent recycled polypropylene (rPP) – a first for a fast-moving consumer goods company. These are small but important steps and we already have many more planned, which add up to significant changes for the future.
Closing the loop
However there is a long way to go. The recycling industry is still relatively immature around the world and many materials are not uniformly recycled. For example, not every area of the UK collects and processes compostable materials. Of course, it’s not just plastics where we need to improve: in many places, glass or metal are still not recycled even though they can be.
This will change – and I believe it will change quickly. I expect to see packaging materials and designs changing in the coming months and years to improve recycling. New and more effective ways of sorting and recycling plastic are becoming established, as well as models for reusing packaging time and time again. A better, holistic recycling network, ideally within a closed loop, will make the process less confusing and frustrating for consumers. Collaboration across the value chain, and between sectors, will be key to delivering this for the future.
Without a doubt, there are areas where we as a company and wider industry can and must improve. Optimistically however, we’ve learnt a lot and progress is accelerating towards a time when we’ll all be using plastic more efficiently and effectively – if we use it at all.