We’ve all seen the pictures: the giant island of rubbish in the ocean, marine animals with plastic around their necks and streetways blanketed in single-use bags, showing the villainous role plastic has on the world’s habitats.
Hoping to shed this “enemy number one” title, the plastics industry is making strides to be as environmentally friendly as possible to keep up with consumer and industry demand.
Plastic manufacturers are turning to use more recycled plastic and reducing their dependence on virgin plastics as the demand for reused material increases.
For example, Unilever said it will reuse 380 tonnes of post-consumer Australian recycled plastic — both High Density Polyethylene (HDP) and Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET).
Alexandra McDonald, Head of Sustainable Business and Communications, Home Beauty Personal Care at Unilever ANZ, said the ambition to use more recycled plastic than virgin plastic demands a fundamental rethink of Unilever’s approach to its packaging and products.
“It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like re-use and re-fill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity.”
By 2025, Unilever wants to halve its use of virgin plastics and help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells.
To achieve that, Unilever is investing in new technology to transform its approach to plastic and to make it open source, so it can reach the scale of change needed.
McDonald said, “For example, we pioneered the development of a new detectable black pigment for our HDP bottles — which we use for our TRESemmé and Lynx brands — making it easier for recycling facilities to scan and sort for recyclable packaging.
“Previously our recycling facilities were unable to identify black plastic because they use a near-infrared light which is absorbed by the ‘carbon black’ pigment traditionally used to colour the bottles.
“Using our new black pigment technology, we have been able to ensure that an additional 100 tonnes of plastic bottles can be sorted and sent for recycling each year in Australia,” she said.
There are some speed bumps when it comes to reducing plastic. McDonald said when integrating the maximum amount of recycled plastic in each of Unilever’s locally made bottles, its R&D team has to work in unprecedented collaboration with its suppliers to overcome structural, safety, aesthetic and odour challenges.
“Factors such as limited availability of high-quality recycled materials, and a lack of adequate infrastructure, can be a big challenge when it comes to creating a circular economy. To address these challenges, we must be innovative.
“Collaboration and heavy lifting are needed from all players — suppliers and brand owners, to policy makers and legislators,” she said.
Market forces could disrupt plastics
Trish Hyde, Managing Director at the Plastics Circle, said these are good business moves for these giant corporations because the public wants to see them act more sustainably and the industry’s customers are demanding it.
“Individually, they are spending more on R&D efforts in recycled content, bio-based content, chemical recycling and resource efficiency,” Hyde told Which-50.
To make plastic sustainable, though, the industry needs to actively participate in growing the circular economy, Hyde argues.
She said, “We are seeing this happen in Asia where collaboration across the value chain occurs. But it would benefit greatly from equal intergovernmental collaboration, including Australia.”
Hyde explained that focusing on the business imperative would speed up change. To solve plastic waste, regional governments need to be talking economics, industry and trade.
“If we treat plastic as an economic problem, rather than waste, there are many more market levers we have — think business-led market disruption, clean-tech, material pricing, international trade policies as well as desirable outcomes — employment, trade, tourism and environment.”
Hyde said the most telling sign that the industry is transforming is that it’s increasing accessibility and transparency — where once it shied away from public discussions, now it’s involved at the start.
Many of these manufacturers have also signed onto environmental initiatives such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which includes more than 40 global companies that have committed to $US1.5 billion to develop infrastructure in the Asia Pacific region to support innovation, education and facilitate cleanups.
The establishment of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste shows that industry recognises the need for collaboration, she explained. However, progress has been slow.
“With Asia Pacific worst hit, it is good to see it as the focal point. But some of the gloss of the announcement has been rubbed off with the glacial set-up.
“It is 14 months since the announcement and the office to administer it is not expected to be operational for another three months — a year and a half of lost opportunity,” Hyde noted.
The industry could and should have progressed this initiative faster — but in its defence, sometimes collaboration is similar to herding cats, Hyde explained.
The Australian government is also ramping up the way it is tackling the plastic problem, hosting the inaugural National Plastics Summit held in Canberra earlier this month.
During the summit, several ministers and leaders identified new solutions to the plastic waste challenge. They also announced plans to mobilise further action from governments, industry and non-government organisations. At the same time, they addressed the seven targets outlined in the 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan.
During the event, a number of pledges were made by organisations including Nestlé, McDonald’s and Qantas. Some of these pledges include removing single-use plastic items and replacing them with compostable items and trialling of soft plastic kerbside collection.
Australia’s largest manufacturer of rigid plastics, Pact Group, announced a $500 million investment in existing and new facilities for sustainable packaging, re-use and recycling initiatives over the next five years.
The need to do more
Despite all the changes and effort plastic manufacturers are making, some believe it’s still not enough. Mark Yates, founder of Repeat Plastics, said “We wouldn’t be in the problem we are in if they were doing enough.”
While the industry is transforming and heading to more sustainable ways, Yates said the shift hasn’t been dramatic so far. But he holds out hopes the changes made in the past six months are going to lead to more action in the future.
“In the last five years, there has been some tinkering around the edges. But you know the only way to get people to move is to drag them kicking and screaming.”
Mandated recycled content — where the government imposes a law that a certain amount of manufactured plastic must be included in new supplies — is the best way forward to make sure companies use recycled content, Yates explained.
Although public awareness is pushing the industry to change, it all comes down to the economics of the operation.
“There are probably a lot of easier ways to make money and unfortunately it all does come down to the dollars,” Yates said. “You can be as aware as you like but unless you’re willing to invest those big dollars, it’s not gonna happen.”