As major consumer product companies rethink how they use plastic packaging, a new report points to changes, including much less growth in resin consumption, more recycled content and a push to eliminate hard-to-recycle items and plastics.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a report Nov. 5 tracking the first year of work by 118 companies and 17 governments in its New Plastics Economy Global Commitment project.
The companies, which include some of the world's biggest buyers of plastic like Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Unilever plc, made a series of pledges to the foundation in 2018 to shift their plastics use by 2025.
Now, they're reporting the results for the first year, offering a snapshot of both major changes and challenges ahead.
"We see real progress is already being made in year one," said Sander Defruyt, lead of the New Plastics Economy project at the foundation. "We see a 22 percent increase in recycled content, [and] we see almost all signatories are eliminating PVC and polystyrene packaging. We see $10 billion of investments committed to achieve these targets.
"But we also see, and it's also crucial to point out, that we will need a further substantial acceleration of progress over the coming years in order to meet the 2025 targets," he said on a Nov. 5 webinar to announce the report.
One change that could be felt broadly in the plastics industry: The companies said the amount of virgin plastic they used dropped 0.1 percent in 2019.
That was replaced by recycled resin, but even then, the companies reported only a 0.6 percent increase in plastics use.
That 0.1 percent decline in virgin resin might sound like a modest impact — the report terms it both a "positive" development and a "minor" drop — but it's also much less than the average global growth for the plastics packaging industry.
Both the EMF report and other studies say the plastic packaging sector as a whole grows about 3-4 percent a year.
The drop in virgin resin use is not a complete surprise. Unilever and Clorox Co., for example, announced plans last year to cut their use of virgin plastic in half by 2025.
The report said 31 percent of the packaged goods and retailers, or 18 companies, committed to cuts in plastics use totaling 23 percent, or 11 million metric tons, by 2025. Various national government plans in Europe include similar targets.
The report is evidence that, as a group, the companies in the EMF project are beginning to scale back the amount of plastic they use.
EMF said it expects further drops in use of virgin resin as companies implement their plans, but it also suggested the coronavirus pandemic, with its increase in takeout food packaging and bubble wrap for shipping, could interrupt that. It said the report can't measure pandemic impacts because it only covers 2019.
While EMF termed the developments as significant steps forward in some areas, another environmental group said it showed that "little progress" was being made by the brand owners.
In a Nov. 5 statement, the Break Free From Plastic movement argued for companies to put more emphasis on reusable packaging and take concrete steps like supporting deposit systems to create clean streams of recycled materials.
That group pointed to a Pew Charitable Trust study earlier this year that estimated that even with existing commitments from companies, the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean would only be reduced 7 percent by 2040, absent substantially more action.