Replacing plastics can have a big impact on supply chains © Getty Images
Replacing plastics can have a big impact on supply chains © Getty Images

The plastic debate: what to consider when changing material supplies

posted by David Burrows
17 April 2020

Businesses are under pressure to replace, reduce or remove packaging to fight climate change – but the practicalities are more complex than many ever imagined.

If plastic was invented today, rather than in 1907, it might well be marketed as a new product with enviably ‘green’ credentials. After all, it is lightweight, readily available, affordable and – compared to other materials, when analysed on a full lifecycle basis – can be relatively frugal when it comes to carbon emissions. Instead, thanks to its durability when leaked into the environment, it is almost universally synonymous with pollution.

“When I mention I’m involved with plastics for a living, I sometimes get a look along the lines of ‘you killed a baby whale’,” noted Dr Sally Beken, a polymer scientist at the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network, in a 2018 blog. Two years on, hostility to plastic has only intensified, largely because so much of this valuable resource is wasted, with just 14% collected for recycling and only 2% recycled back into similar quality products globally, according to the most recent figures.

The Center for International Environmental Law suggests that by 2050, as much as 14% of the Earth’s remaining carbon allocation could have been used in the production and disposal of plastic. And yet, removing it from supply chains – while undoubtedly crucial – is often far from straightforward. How, procurement specialists are increasingly asking, can they deal with both the requirement to improve sustainability and the many inherent contradictions involved in the discussion around plastics?

The lightning rod for the plastic debate is packaging, not just because it is the single largest application of plastic – accounting for 26% of usage by global volume – but also because it is most prone to ‘leakage’, and comprises almost two thirds of all items collected in international coastal clean-up operations. As such, the ultra-competitive UK supermarket sector has become an ideal place to see which ideas are realistic, both economically and environmentally.

Take Waitrose, with its ‘Unpacked’ store in Oxford, which saw 200 products taken out of their packaging. Tesco removed the so-called “pointless plastic” holding cans of soup, beans and tuna together, while retaining the ability to receive multipack prices for multiple purchases, eliminating 350 tonnes of plastic a year at a stroke. Meanwhile, Iceland has committed to removing plastic from all its own label packaging by 2023. So far, it has managed a 29% reduction but described it as a “seismic change” that required challenging the preconceptions both of customers and suppliers.

Surveys suggest up to 80% of people in Western economies are trying to reduce their plastic waste and would be willing to pay more for eco-friendly packaging. Brands seen to be dragging their feet over the issue clearly face a backlash: last year, Nestle was criticised by campaigners for not cutting its 1.7m tonne a year plastic packaging footprint fast enough, even though oil giants like Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil are far more notable polluters.

There is also political pressure. The speed with which new regulations are being created has been unprecedented. In the UK, a new plastics tax will be applied to plastic packaging produced in or imported into the country that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic.

In Europe, the single-use plastics directive, which includes bans on certain items and dramatic reductions in others, has sped through the approval process. “Procurement departments are seeing pressure come through ... but also the opportunity that producing [or buying] less costs less. That saved money can be used to build funds for more research and development,” says Daniel Harvey from management consultancy BearingPoint.

“The challenge for buyers to make the right decisions is huge,” says James O’Neill, principal consultant at procurement specialist Proxima. “Maturity is building across the industry and we expect organisations to shift further towards whole life sustainability costing models considering all impacts across the value chain. There are lots of opportunities.

“We’re seeing pasta shift from plastic packaging to recyclable card alternatives. An additional benefit the supply chain is seeing is better packaging stability so they can stack more on transport vehicles and achieve efficiencies and reduce carbon emissions,” he says.

The innovation imperative

One of the first, and most obvious, questions for procurement specialists tackling the plastic issue should be: is the packaging actually necessary? Iceland, for example, has come up with a simple solution to removing sauce sachets from its frozen ready meals: instead of including a plastic sachet, a portion of frozen sauce is dropped in without any need for packaging.

Other quick wins involve the polybags that are ubiquitous in online retailing. Made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), they have a lower carbon footprint than paper ones but offer so little value there is no appetite to recycle them. Billions are used every year: however, some clothing brands have started to ship items without a bag and “they’ve realised it’s fine”, says Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder of the Sustainable Design Alliance.

Part of the problem lies in supply chains – T-shirts will arrive with a retailer ‘ready to ship’ and bagged individually rather than in bulk. But imagine if the items came in one (reusable) container and at the warehouse were placed loose into the order sent to customers? For Foulkes-Arellano, it comes down to asking a simple question: can it be done?

He adds: “When you are forced to do things differently and things right [it makes you] think. What kills most green innovation is people not making that first phone call.” He admits that’s easier for some buyers than others. “The reason that Heinz took the wrap off its beans in Tesco is because Dave Lewis [Tesco’s CEO] brought the senior executives [from its suppliers] into a room and asked them to come up with solutions. That threat got big brands moving but it takes a senior person to say that. Otherwise, they’d think of a million reasons not to do it.”

Sometimes the answer lies not in removing packaging but thinking differently about it. For some, that means considering novel materials such as seaweed or investing in new technology like chemical recycling to treat hard-to-recycle plastics. Others feel businesses should be moving beyond single-use packaging and embracing novel innovations that challenge existing processes and behaviours.

“With all these new materials and composites, the true cost of innovation isn’t borne by the producers, it’s borne by the environment and waste management companies,” says Michael Lenaghan, an environmental policy officer with Zero Waste Scotland. “The easy option for businesses is to think within and tweak their linear models. We need to change the whole system and not just the packaging.”

Some are trying. Multinational recycling giant TerraCycle is introducing a new programme, called Loop, involving the likes of Nestle and Procter & Gamble, which sees products being delivered to retailers in specially designed packaging that can be used over and over again; empties are collected, washed, refilled and restocked. It’s a 21st-century take on milk deliveries, with plenty of new tech: for example, it utilises refillable ice-cream containers that keep the product frozen for up to eight hours.

Ideas like this allow retailers and manufacturers to take control of the process. But they also pre-empt another potential pitfall: as governments around the world begin to legislate in various ways against the use of plastics with a low proportion of recycled content, the lack of recycled plastic feedstock in the system will create supply chain issues of its own.

Ingka Group, which owns Ikea, has invested in Umincorp, the Dutch company that has developed magnetic density separation technology that allows mixed plastic streams to be recycled directly into separated polymer groups. Last year, the price for recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) actually edged above virgin material thanks to “increased demand and a bearish sentiment in the virgin market”, says Benjamin Brooks from S&P Global Platts, a commodities specialist. The premium for rPET currently stands at €115 per tonne – a price that is testing commitments to include ever-higher levels of recycled plastic. But it would be a brave business that started to backtrack now.

Financial concerns will always have to be weighed against the environmental costs and benefits: a PwC estimate for Green Alliance, a think tank, showed that switching all current consumption of plastic packaging on a like-for-like basis, to the other materials currently used for packaging in the UK (including glass, aluminium and paper) could almost triple associated carbon emissions from 1.7 billion tonnes to 4.8 billion tonnes.

There is another consideration, too, as Brooks noted recently: “There are also bans coming into force across the globe for commonly used single-use plastics, such as plastic bags, straws and cutlery. These pose other questions, including what materials will be used to replace them, how much they will cost and, importantly, how much more environmentally friendly they actually are.”

The single-use plastics directive which passed into EU law in June 2019 will ban plastic cotton bud sticks, cutlery and straws, among other items, by 2021. Single-use drinks cups and fast food containers are also being targeted. In France, for example, plans are in place to require all takeaway outlets to adopt reusable containers when customers dine in.

From theory to practice

The public sector in many countries is being required to lead the way – which brings its own challenges. Not all procurement teams will have the right sustainability expertise, for a start, and will need to get up to speed. “You have to be very clear in the text so it can be lifted into tender documents,” says Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at consultancy Eunomia, which has worked with regional and national governments to address the issue. Without such detailed guidance, there is the risk decisions will be made based on “common beliefs” and external pressure, rather than science and evidence, he adds.

There is also the risk, in any sector, of making counter-intuitive decisions. The UK Houses of Parliament switched its contract catering services to compostable cups but was criticised when it emerged that most were incinerated, not composted. More profoundly, it also introduced a charge on the cups to encourage people to bring reusable ones or sit in and use a china mug. The result? Monthly sales of hot drinks in single-use cups fell from 58,000 to 15,000 with no negative impact on overall sales.

Hilton cites another example, in which pressure from children and teachers in one school led to plastic milk bottles being replaced with glass ones. However, the dairy that had the contract couldn’t bottle its milk in glass so it had to be sourced from 300 miles away. “The best solution, environmentally, was actually bagged milk,” Hilton says.

It is an example that illustrates the complexities of the plastic debate. For procurement teams, there are rarely easy answers – but it’s an issue that, for all manner of pressing reasons, cannot afford to wait any longer.

Don’t lose it, reuse it

According to figures from the University of California, plastic recycling rates are at their highest in Europe at 30%, with a quarter of plastic recycled in China and just 9% in the US.

While the technology exists to recycle every type of plastic, it has not been scaled up around the world such that everyone has access. In the UK, there is a ​massive disparity​ between counties when it comes to which ​plastics can and cannot be recycled​. However, a number of businesses are finding ways to reuse the material to create new products. Just a few instances of this come from industries as diverse as ​construction​ and ​fashion​.

One such example is ​Springfield Homes​, which unveiled a​ ​road​ made from 20 tonnes of waste plastics on a housing development in Scotland. Meanwhile, the first commercial installation of ​PVC-U windows​ manufactured from 98% recycled content was completed by the ​Epwin Group​.

Retailers including ​Marks & Spencer​, Australian manufacturer ​Nimble​ and ​Prada are making items out of old plastic. And ​adidas​, ​Levi​ ​Strauss​ and ​Speedo​ are producing items from ​Econyl​, a thread made from recycled materials, including abandoned​ fishing nets​.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation, WRAP UK

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