4 Learnings from Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Progress Report

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN Environmental Program is leading the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Their list of over 400 signatories has joined hands in the pursuit of their common goal – to target plastic waste at its source. These signatories include NGOs, governments, universities, industry associations, investors, and other organizations. The commitment aims to shift us from a linear to a circular business model that ensures reduced plastic waste. 

For the first time since its launch in October 2018, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a progress report that details the advancements made by the signatories on their respective targets. The report is packed with insights on the current plastic problem as well as, business and policy efforts made to improve it. Following are a few interesting takeaways from the report:

1. Reusability is Crucial but Adoption is Abysmally Low

Recycled paper that can be used again

The reusable packaging model is a necessary piece in the circular economy puzzle. It refers to packaging that can be used after it serves its initial purpose. They are durable and easy to repurpose and serve consumers over a longer period of time. 

These features of reusable packaging also ensure that they offer better protection of the products or parts within. Additionally, they minimize transit damage – which helps reduce the resources required to dispose of the unsellable products, as well as to manufacture and ship the replacement. If designed correctly, reusable packaging can help to minimize C02 emissions through more efficient transit. 

Only less than 3% of the signatories’ packaging is currently reusable. 13% of larger signatories reported having reuse models in place across a ‘significant proportion’ of their portfolio. The remaining 36% of them continue to adopt single-use packaging today. These 43 packaged goods companies, packaging partners, and retailer signatories are currently testing and piloting reuse business models. Governments are also contributing to this project – they are attempting to speed up the shift towards a reusable model through Extended Producer Responsibility legislation and public awareness campaigns. 

According to the report by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the 139 signatories strive to achieve 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. 

2. The Demand for Recycled Materials in Packaging is Growing

Nestle's recyclable pouch for baby food

Currently, only 9% of plastic packaging worldwide is recycled. 14% of packaging makes its way to recycling plants – out of this, a third is left in fragile ecosystems and 40% is left in landfills. Once left in landfills, plastics can take up to 1000 years to decompose. A viable solution to this widespread problem would be to replace our use of virgin plastic (which encourages the production of more plastic) with recycled plastics. This helps push for a more circular economy where products and materials remain in circulation for a longer period of time. 

The signatories have committed to replacing the use of virgin plastics in packaging with recycled plastics. By 2025, packaged goods companies and retailers have committed to an average of 25% recycled content in their packaging by 2025. Companies have set individual targets for them to meet by 2025. Unilever aims to have 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025, and Mars, Incorporated wants to reduce its use of virgin plastics by 25%. Progress is being made towards these targets already: the use of recycled content in signatories’ packaging grew by 23% between 2017 and 2018.

Taking these targets into consideration, the total annual demand for recycled plastics for packaging is estimated at 5 million tonnes. This implies a surge in the ethical sourcing market in the near future. 

3. Governments are Investing in Infrastructure to Accelerate Progress 

A man carrying a box of recyclable materials

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, besides the several commitments made by companies, government signatories have also made commitments to accelerate the journey to the goals set. These governments are collaborating with industries and other stakeholders to reach 2025 targets for recycling rates. For example, the United Kingdom’s plastic pact aims to effectively recycle 70% of all plastic packaging in the country by 2025 and France is attempting to achieve 60% by 2022. Chile plans to be effectively recycling one thirds of their plastic packaging by 2025. 

These governments are also improving efforts by investing in infrastructure for recycling and composting. They are also taking steps to implement deposit return schemes. Some of the governments contributing significantly are the UK, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and New Zealand. 

4. Four of the Largest FMCG Companies aren’t Signatories

P&G debuts shampoo bottle made of ocean plastic

Our plastic pollution problem is driven by the single-use/disposable mindset that shadows our plastic use. According to Greenpeace, this mindset is encouraged by the convenient, single-use packaging designs adopted by FMCG products. These FMCG companies are responsible for the majority of the throwaway products that sustain our modern disposable lifestyle. 

Based on revenue, the top 10 FMCG companies are Nestle, P&G, PepsiCo, AB InBev, Unilever, JBS, Tyson Foods, Mars Incorporated, The Coca-Cola Company, and Loreal. Out of these 10, 4 aren’t signatories of the global commitment. This includes P&G, AB InBev, JBS, and Tyson Foods. 

Considering the fact that these companies are the largest revenue generators, it’s safe to assume that they are the most powerful players in the FMCG industry. The global plastic commitment could use their participation to set the trend for smaller players to follow. When the top 10 take measures, it raises consumer expectations and other companies will also have to meet these standards. 

The global commitment pushes companies to achieve their long-term goals. Although working towards a long-term plastic-free future is important, it doesn’t change the fact that the plastic problem exists today and its effects are imminent. In addition to long-term efforts, organizations should also focus on undoing the damage done thus far. Plastic credits are an effective way for them to take responsibility for their current plastic footprint while working towards a larger goal of reduced plastic waste.

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