We have a plastic problem. On a trip to visit my family in South Africa at Christmas, what struck me was that even on the most remote and protected marine coastline my children and I managed to fill bags with plastic straws and other plastic debris. And the stats confirm we have a problem. Currently, only 14% of our annual plastic packaging produced is recycled, while only 2% is reused for the same or similar products.1
Instead, most of our plastic waste ends up in landfill, with huge CO2 emission implications, or is leaked into our environment (around 12 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans globally every year)2. The problem is only growing as urbanisation, population and income growth, particularly in emerging markets, lead to growing plastic packaging consumption.
Earlier this year, China joined the growing movement of more than 120 countries pledging to ban single-use plastics after its largest rubbish dump – the size of around 100 football fields – was filled 25 years ahead of schedule. However, it is not only consumers and governments who are being pressured to deal with plastic waste. To-date, corporates have held little to no responsibility for the waste they produce – their production has been linear, ie,they don’t consider the end-of-life of their products.
But this is starting to change with growing pressure from consumers and regulators for production systems to become more circular. For example, consumer staples companies such as Coca-Cola are coming under increased pressure to deal with their contribution to plastic pollution. A global audit of plastic waste by charity Break Free from Plastic found Coca-Cola to once again be the most polluting brand in 2019. It currently produces around three million tonnes of plastic packaging per annum, or roughly 200,000 bottles a minute.3
The UN SDGs include targets to do “more and better with less”. This means companies such as Coca-Cola need to overhaul entire supply chains – they must learn to reduce, redesign, reuse and recycle resources. By doing so we can keep waste production at more sustainable levels.
Ultimately, shifting to more circular production also makes good business sense. By producing products that are fully recyclable and can be reused as inputs not only promotes a company’s brand, but can also help lower production costs over the long term.