Have major consumer product companies hit "peak virgin plastic," the point at which their use of new plastic declines?
A Nov. 16 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says yes, at least for global brands like Nestlé SA, PepsiCo Inc., Unilever plc, Coca-Cola Co. and others that signed onto its 2018 global commitments to reduce their plastics use and rethink packaging.
"After decades of growth, virgin plastics use appears to have peaked [for those] brands and retailers and is set to fall faster by 2025," according to the report, which was prepared with the United Nations Environment Program.
The report, which is released annually to track how nearly 100 companies are doing to meet 2025 pledges made to EMF, does not say plastics use overall is declining in packaging.
But with the signatory companies making up what EMF said is 20 percent of worldwide use of plastic packaging, it's a significant market shift.
In a statement, EMF and UNEP said the changes by the global companies were a sign of "clear progress." But they called on companies to invest more in reusable packaging and on governments to pass a global plastics treaty because they said voluntary efforts will not do enough to reduce plastics pollution and make the industry more circular.
They said less than 2 percent of the companies' plastic packaging is reusable, and it said that progress toward 2025 targets has so far been "driven largely by switching from virgin plastic to recycled plastic." It called that inadequate.
"We won't recycle our way out of plastic pollution; eliminating single-use packaging is a vital part of the solution," said Ellen MacArthur, EMF founder and chair. "Alarmingly, our report shows little investment in this. We need much more urgent focus on upstream innovation to rethink how to deliver products without packaging or by using reusable packaging."
EMF said the signatory companies are set to reduce their use of virgin plastic by 20 percent by 2025 in absolute terms, compared with 2018 levels.
The organizations also called on governments to begin serious work on a global plastics treaty at the next U.N. Environment Assembly meeting, in February in Kenya, calling it crucial to have more of the plastics supply chain "move at the necessary scale and pace."
It said more than 100 countries and 80 large companies have backed calls for a plastics treaty.
The head of the U.N. Environment Program said the report's data suggest it will be possible to decouple the benefits of plastics use from the manufacturing virgin plastic.
"The front-runner [companies] are also demonstrating that we can decouple the benefits we derive from plastic from the consumption of virgin plastic, and this is groundbreaking," said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director. "But the action from these front-runners can be boosted by a comprehensive, inclusive and global approach."
The report provides detailed self-reported information on plastics use by the large companies.
It notes, for example, that Unilever saw its use of post-consumer recycled plastic rise from 1 percent of its packaging in 2018 to 11 percent in 2020, on the way to a 25 percent target by 2025.
But other firms reported much less. PepsiCo only went from 3 percent to 5 percent in the period. Many of the companies have targets of 25-50 percent recycled-content plastic and reduction targets of virgin plastic use of between 5-50 percent.
On average, the report said the consumer and retail companies who signed the EMF pledge increased their post-consumer plastic recycled content in packaging from 5.2 percent in 2018 to 8.2 percent in 2020.
It said the plastics recycling industry globally has increased its capacity 50 percent in recent years, from about 1 million metric tons in 2018 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2020.
As well, the EMF data included some information on post-consumer plastic use by large packaging makers.
It said Berry Global reported 2.3 percent post-consumer content, Amcor Ltd. 5 percent and Aptar Group 0.5 percent, for example.
TC Transcontinental reported 0.8 percent, while Silgan Plastics hit a level of 2.1 percent. Most plastics packaging makers reported less than 10 percent, although Klöckner Pentaplast reached 21.5 percent post-consumer plastic content in 2020, EMF said.
In a statement, Greenpeace called on the consumer goods and retail companies in the report to set targets for reusable packaging and take stronger action to move away from single-use plastics.
"If these companies are serious about tackling plastic pollution and addressing climate change, they must set reuse targets of at least 25 percent by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030," said Graham Forbes, Greenpeace's global plastics project leader.