Exploring collaborative solutions across value chains. By Anna Mouton.
“Why is plastic packaging so ubiquitous?” asked Lorren de Kock from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). WWF is the largest conservation organisation in the world and is active in more than a hundred countries.
According to De Kock, plastic is so popular because it’s inexpensive and versatile. Plastic packaging also extends the shelf life of fruit. “But there’s a dark side to this,” said De Kock. “Plastic packaging has become the number one environmental issue. At a global scale we release nine million tonnes of plastic into the environment each year.”
The production of plastic has skyrocketed over recent decades and is expected to increase a further forty percent in the next ten years. De Kock highlighted that three-quarters of all the plastic that has ever been produced is now waste. “The current waste management infrastructure cannot keep up with this increase in plastic.”
Most plastic is used for packaging and most of that is single-use — it’s used once and then discarded. Packaging is designed to be attractive and lightweight as opposed to reusable or recyclable. “Eighty percent of the environmental impact of plastic can be addressed in the design stage,” stressed De Kock.
The European Commission recently approved the single-use plastics directive and are taking measures to reduce the consumption of plastic packaging. The private sector is being equally proactive with several retailers — including Tesco and Waitrose — assessing plastic-free aisles in their stores.
South Africa has seen a significant increase in waste recycling mainly due to the informal waste sector. “Waste pickers have led to collection rates increasing over the last ten to fifteen years,” said De Kock. Informal waste collection represents eighty to ninety percent of the recovery of post-consumer recyclables.
Legislation has also expanded over the past decade. Last year the plastics industry had to submit targets to government which included collection rates for recycling and increased levies on different plastic materials. This is likely to lead to price hikes for plastic packaging. Proposals are in the pipeline to phase out six common single-use items.
The private sector in South Africa is aware of the changing landscape and are following the example of their European counterparts. Woolworths has announced that they will transition to fully reusable or recyclable packaging by 2022.
Moving to a circular economy
The current flow of plastics — and many other materials — is based on a linear economy. New plastics are manufactured to replace that which is lost. “The majority of plastic ends up either being landfilled or leaks into the environment. Very little goes back into a closed loop,” said De Kock.
Shifting from a linear to a circular economy would keep plastic out of the environment and retain the value within the material stream. This requires a new emphasis on design for reuse and recyclability in addition to visual appeal. “WWF is committed to support the adoption of a circular plastics economy in South Africa,” stated De Kock. “One of our interventions at industry level is the South African Plastics Pact.”
Examples of the targets set by the Plastics Pact are that all plastic packaging should be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, and that problematic plastics should be addressed by 2021. Organisations that want more information on sustainable packaging design can consult the Design for Recycling guidelines available online from PackagingSA.
“Organisations that are signatories to the various Plastic Pacts internationally are sending their fruit exporters and suppliers guidelines on the materials to be used for their packaging,” said De Kock. Materials are classified as red, amber, or green. Red materials — including polystyrene, oxo-degradable and black plastics — will be phased out this year. Amber materials are those where use is discouraged and include flow wrap. Green materials are preferred. Plastics in the green category include high- and low-density polyethylene.
De Kock presented some general principles to consider when making choices around packaging. “Look at your material combinations and separability. Multilayers are not recycled currently so try to move away from them if possible.” Labels, printing inks and adhesives used on packaging can also affect recyclability. Packaging with food residues that are difficult to remove may be impossible to recycle.
De Kock believes that the challenges of plastic pollution can be met. “We need to keep in mind the trade-offs between extending shelf life, what the consumer wants, versatility and affordability, and the waste that is generated. Let’s design smartly and not take the easy route — which will just generate more waste. The packaging landscape is changing and the sooner you get on board the better for your product.”