Making Sustainability Tangible; From Excess To Resourcefulness

by Mike Webster

Sustainability has entered the mainstream consciousness over the past few years, in the process becoming a key concern for most FMCG businesses today.

Public enemy number one is conventional oil-based plastic, thanks in part to that episode of Blue Planet II. According to the Ellen McArthur foundation, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050, and there are massive garbage patches in our oceans; the most famous—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—is estimated to be double the size of Texas. Our disposal of plastics is no longer “out of sight, out of mind.”

This has driven the demand for more responsible products and packaging, and the emergence of new and differentiated paths toward sustainability. One such approach is the transition within packaging from excess to resourcefulness.

We used to think positively about having more yet today we think of doing more with less. Purposeful brands are demonstrating a spirit of resourcefulness through products and packaging that either give back, reuse or extend life while progressive supermarkets are beginning to take a stand against excessive packaging and remove plastic from their shelves.

The world of fashion has been vocal here. Stella McCartney claims the future of fashion is circular. Nudie Jeans encourage their consumers to keep their jeans for longer by offering free repairs and suggestions on customizing them as they wear and tear. Meanwhile, numerous brands are working hard to reduce waste. Hermes diffusion brand Petit H has made products from offcuts. Burberry is collaborating with sustainable accessories brand Elvis and Kresse to turn 120 tonnes of their leather off-cuts into innovative homewares and accessories over a five year period, with the profits going to renewable energy charities and craftspeople.

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Method and Ecover have traditionally led the way in the recycling of conventional plastic, but larger brands like Head & Shoulders and Fairy have joined them in launching bottles made from varying proportions of ocean plastic. Unilever skincare brand Ren is even celebrating the grey hue of their 100% recycled, 20% reclaimed ocean plastic bottle, saying “grey is the new green.” They have also developed a metal-free pump that can get recycled along with the bottles, all part of their pledge to become a zero-waste company by 2021.

Coca-Cola and Heinz have diversified and developed a bio alternative to oil-based plastics. Their plant bottles are a bio-plastic made from renewable plant-based resources such as corn and cassava, also known as polylactic acid (PLA). Other brands are getting in on the act, such as men’s skincare brand Bulldog who use sugar cane as the raw material for its flexible tube packaging.

But it doesn’t stop there. More and more alternatives are appearing, in the process creating a new visual language of sustainability.

Paperfoam is a potato starch-based biopolymer which can be injection molded and is home-compostable or recyclable with paper. It is typically used to pack electronics, medical products and cosmetics but they collaborated with Verve Clicquot to produce a gift pack that keeps a chilled bottle of champagne cool for two hours.

Carlsberg is developing the Green Fibre Bottle made from sustainable wood fiber in partnership with EcoXpac. They spotted the need to offer a packaging alternative within their portfolio to reflect the evolving preferences of their consumers. The distinctive bottle is scheduled for consumer testing this year. Additionally, the packaging for the world’s first sustainable rum by Fitzroy showcases upcycling – the utilization of waste materials to create something useful – at its best. The spirits-maker produces beautiful marble-like caps made from discarded Coca-Cola labels.

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There’s also using or shipping less.

Ooho is a flexible packaging system made from seaweed that is perfectly suited for the on-the-go. It is edible and degrades over six weeks within the natural environment. DS3 is a breakthrough home and personal cleaning product that has had all the water removed, resulting in 80% less weight, 75% less space, and 75% fewer emissions.

We’re seeing a proliferation of packaging materials and formats attempting to deliver a more sustainable future and competing for brands’ patronage. However, unless there is clear and adequate infrastructure in place to recycle or repurpose any format we embrace, we are doing more harm than good. Sustainability relies as much on product sourcing and composition, clean production processes, disposal strategies and people’s consumption behaviors as it does on the material choice.

The aspiration of every major FMCG brand in the world seems to be the adoption of recycled oil-based plastics, yet where will all the recycled plastic come from to meet the demand? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has just published a report revealing the quantities of plastic produced annually by a selection of major corporations, and the figures are astounding. According to The Guardian, the world’s PET bottle output alone is approximately 500 billion bottles per year, of which Coca-Cola contributes around 108 billion. Bear in mind that this includes only 30 of the 150 producers who have signed up to the foundation’s global commitment and excludes large corporations like PepsiCo and L’Oreal.

Bio-plastics also require significant infrastructure investment. You can call them compostable or biodegradable, but the reality is that not all will decompose easily or completely if put in the home compost. In these cases, an industrial process called hydrolyzing is required that uses water to break up the polymer chains before they can biodegrade. Again, national infrastructures are lacking in many countries; most councils in the UK, for example, are unable to accept them in food or garden waste collections. They can’t be placed in conventional plastic recycling either as this contaminates the stream and impacts the quality which can result in everything going to landfill. Herein lies a problem – because they look like conventional plastics, consumers assume they get recycled in the same way.

There are signs that governments are beginning to wake up to the scale of the problem. The UK government published awhite paper in December 2018 which considers limiting the number of plastic types from producers, and making them responsible for their recycling. There now seems to be a consensus forming that circularity in some form is where we have to be, and that brands have to lead the way in helping inform and educate consumers of the way forward.

The challenge today is establishing which is the right material solution (or combinations). There will be choices to make, and some of these formats will fall by the wayside.

The different stakeholders all have a role to play here. It is the responsibility of governments to define their sustainability and recyclability strategies, and build an infrastructure to enable these to be achieved. It is the responsibility of brands and producers to inform and empower consumers with the tools to act responsibly. And it is the responsibility of us, the consumers, to ensure we are doing everything we can to ensure the system performs as intended, from cleaning out packs to sorting them properly.

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