Too much plastic. Consumers around the world are frustrated with plastic. A recent study from Global Data says that 35% of UK consumers are more likely to purchase products without any plastic at all, compared to goods even with recycled plastic. Many brands and supermarket chains have either chosen to introduce packaging with reduced plastic or remove plastic packaging completely, according to George Henry, Global Data consumer analyst.

Speaking at the recent ICIS Recycling Conference in Berlin, Germany, Paul Hodges, chairman of International eChem, said there’s an awful lot of work to do in a very limited time.

“It’s very clear there’s a paradigm shift going on in the industry,” says Hodges. “Companies are waking up to the fact that waste plastics are a really big issue—one that’s not going to go away. Single-use plastics are going to be in the firing line for the next few years—and models simply must change.”

Food companies like Nestlé are trying to create a market for food-grade recycled plastics, which have not been cost competitive with virgin plastic. Nestlé is investing about $2 billion to lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics and to accelerate the development of innovative, sustainable packaging solutions. Building on its 2018 commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, Nestlé will reduce its use of virgin plastics by one-third in the same period while working with others to advance the “circular economy” and endeavor to clean up plastic waste from oceans, lakes and rivers.

Most plastics are difficult to recycle for food packaging, leading to a limited supply of food-grade recycled plastics. To create a market, Nestlé is committed to sourcing up to 2 million metric tons of food-grade recycled plastics and allocating more than $1.5 billion to pay a premium for these materials between now and 2025. Nestlé will seek operational efficiencies to keep this initiative earnings neutral.

British Petroleum (BP) gets involved

In December 2019, hosted by BP, a new consortium of companies came together to work toward recycling opaque and difficult-to-recycle (known as “ODR”) waste—such as highly colored bottles and food trays. Instrumental in this consortium is BP’s Infinia process, which is able to turn opaque and ODR PET plastic waste (which can degrade in quality each time it is recycled using conventional methods) into recycle feedstocks that can be used to make high-quality PET plastic packaging over and over, with no loss in quality.

Also in the consortium are Danone, Britvic (beverages), Unilever, Remondis Recycling (waste management and recycling specialist) and ALPHA (packaging and recycling). The members believe that by joining forces they can speed up the commercialization of the technology, infrastructure and demand needed to process billions of opaque and ODR bottles and food trays that are disposed of each year. 

Each member will contribute resources and distinctive capabilities and experience to develop a business model that takes into consideration the infrastructure, supply chain and demand requirements of all parties trying to create a circular economy for polyester and PET plastic.

In October 2019, BP announced plans to construct a $25 million U.S. pilot plant to prove the technology on a continuous basis before progressing to full-scale commercialization. 

“This is an exciting step toward a circular economy for the polyester industry,” says Rita Griffin, BP COO, petrochemicals. “BP is experienced in developing and scaling up technology, and we’ll do this again with our innovative BP Infinia process. But we know we cannot create circularity on our own. That’s why we are thrilled to be working together with industry leaders to develop and prove a practical business model that can hopefully contribute to making all types of polyester waste infinitely recyclable.”

“Packaging is essential to ensure food safety and to reduce food waste, but it presents an environmental challenge,” says Katharina Stenholm, Danone’s SVP, chief cycles and procurement officer. “At Danone we commit to ensuring that our packaging will be 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025 and that our water and other beverages bottles will contain 50% rPET by then. We keep joining forces with partners and pooling expertise in order to develop innovative recycling solutions, create a second life for all plastics and thus accelerate the global transition toward a circular economy of packaging.”