When big brand owners say they're going to use less virgin plastic, how will that impact the plastics supply chain?
Last week, consumer goods giant Unilever plc joined the ranks of companies making specific pledges about their plastic usage. Clorox Co. announced its strategy Oct. 2, and Procter & Gamble Co. did in April.
Unilever's pledge, to cut its use of virgin plastics in half by 2025, is similar to what its competitors had previously announced. The company estimates it currently uses about 1.5 million pounds of plastics packaging per year.
A 50 percent cut is an ambitious goal, but one that I think the big brands can achieve. Unilever, Clorox and P&G don't announce goals that they can't meet. And these goals are critically important to their brands. Have you noticed supermarkets starting to promote plastic-free aisles? That's the future if the brand owners don't succeed.
First, they're going to redesign their plastics packaging to use less material. Walls will get thinner and products will be more concentrated, requiring smaller packages. That's a trend we've been seeing since around 2001, when we first started to hear talk about "sustainability."
It will be difficult to save a lot of material without radical changes in packaging design. So I expect radical changes in packaging design.
Next, they'll step up their use of recycled plastics. That's right, they'll use more plastic, but only the post-consumer stuff. Brand owners do not want to abandon plastic completely; they just want to use less virgin plastic. That fits in nicely with the current environmental fad, the goal to create a circular economy.
What's a circular economy? For brand owners, it means they want to stop — or radically reduce — their consumption of natural resources and to create zero waste.
Achieving a circular economy model may be impossible for companies that make automobiles, but it's a little easier for companies that make soap and bleach. If they can recycle their old packaging into new packaging, they're well on the way.
Unilever, Clorox and P&G are all well acquainted with designing packaging that can be recycled, and with using recycled plastic in plastic bottles, too. But using recycled plastic in products like pouches and injection molded closures will be harder. Not to mention that there's currently a shortage of prime-quality post-consumer plastic for packaging applications. Brand owners are working on that problem, too. But that's a topic for another column.
Finally, there will be some material substitution. Paper or aluminum will replace some plastic. Maybe we'll also see more returnable/refillable packaging. That's what Greenpeace wants, but I don't think a majority of consumers will participate. We can't even get Americans to stop throwing trash out of their car windows. Does anyone really think they'll start mailing their used deodorant sticks back to be refilled?
Material substitution is the part that bothers plastics industry folks the most, because they know that plastic is usually the most sustainable choice. Plastic saves energy, material and cost.
The bottom line is that if the plastics supply chain can make big strides in product redesign and stepped up use of post-consumer resin, then that lessens the need for material substitution.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.