Earlier this month, PepsiCo committed to eliminating all virgin plastic from its Pepsi brand bottles by 2022. We spoke with Archana Jagannathan, senior director of sustainable packaging at PepsiCo, to unpack the sustainability, technical and regulatory challenges presented by this move.
To start us off, could you introduce this new initiative to our readers?
We have recently announced that we are committing to using 100% recycled plastic (rPET) bottles in nine European countries for our Pepsi brand over the next two years.
This means we will eliminate all virgin plastic from our Pepsi brand bottles by 2022, and in turn, reduce over 70,000 tonnes of fossil-fuel-based plastic per year, while lowering carbon emissions per bottle by approximately 40%. In addition, five markets will also move to using 100% rPET bottles for our entire soft drinks portfolio.
This is not a commitment that is far away in the future – the action begins now. For example, Germany has recently announced plans to use 100% rPET by 2021 and Great Britain and France by 2022. BeLux will also transition to 100% rPET on all soft drinks by 2022.
The key to this is technology and supply development. Two years ago, putting carbonated drinks in 100% rPET wasn’t possible at scale and there was not a ready supply of high-quality plastic for food use. Technical advancements and improvements in availability have paved the way to making this announcement.
I’d like to learn more about how this project will work in practice – could you tell us more about this?
We can’t share specifics of suppliers, but the collection of the post-consumer waste will be done locally in the nine markets.
The recyclate material may need to be processed in countries other than where the product was consumed depending on where the recycling and convertor industries are located. Reaching our 100% rPET target across the Pepsi brand by 2022 will be no easy task. We can’t do it alone and ultimately; we need changes in waste management policy. The waste management infrastructure across the EU is central to this challenge.
We need to collaborate across our value chain to ensure packaging is collected, sorted, and recycled in all markets across Europe. This means strong, harmonized, and transparent systems, and a competitive market for waste materials.
We also need to design packaging to be recyclable and make it easy for consumers to recycle, and we need recyclers to innovate so that more is recycled. Finally, we need governments to ensure waste management systems are in place so we can all play our part in a circular economy.
Will the use of rPET come with any inherent payoffs in terms of things like decreased performance and increased prices?
Our R&D team has worked closely with suppliers to overcome any performance issues in packaging and put in place tight specifications. This will require an investment today as recycled plastic is priced at a premium versus virgin plastic. rPET costs depend on the feedstock, the processing cost, and the demand-supply situation.
We are working closely with governments on collection schemes that deliver clean feedstock, we are working closely with recycling partners to ensure we build enough processing capacity in the market. We believe, in the long run, that the rPET industry will mature.
Back in July, you spoke with us about PepsiCo’s newly released 2019 sustainability report. How does this new announcement fit in with the ambitions set out in that report?
This meets with our overall ambition to lead a green recovery in Europe and ultimately, embed sustainability into PepsiCo’s DNA. A critical part of this is working to build a world where plastic need never becomes waste. To do that, we want to eliminate virgin, fossil-fuel-based plastics from beverage bottles sold in the EU to the maximum extent possible.
But clearly a green recovery does not stop with packaging waste. Our planet is facing an environmental crisis. Business must change the way we operate. Globally, our brands touch one billion consumers every day, who expect us to be responsible and sustainable in the way we operate.
This is why we have put sustainability at the top of our business agenda in Europe. We recently announced we will use 100% renewable electricity in all our factories across Europe by 2022. We also continue to drive our Sustainable Farming Programme across Europe – working directly with over 2,300 farmers to support them to produce more, using less.
Using more recycled content is just one pillar of PepsiCo’s sustainability strategy. You also aim to reduce the amount of packaging you use and reinvent your packaging through innovations. Could you break these concepts down for us?
Recycling is not our only path and we know that recycling is just one – important – part of the solution to tackling plastic waste.
We are also reducing the volume of packaging we use, fuelled by innovation. For example, in recent times, we’ve made many of our plastic bottles lighter, allowing us to use less plastic and reduce the carbon impact of our drinks.
For our snacks, we have been trialling a new technology called “charge compaction” which causes our snacks to settle in the bottom of a bag during packaging, reducing the amount of packaging we need, while still maintaining the same amount of product.
Reinvention is also a key part of our plans as we look for new materials and alternative ways consumers can enjoy our products, and participation in reusable models such as Loop and SodaStream.
There is fear in some sectors that recycled materials aren’t being used due to the comparatively cheap price of virgin plastics. How would you respond to this?
There are of course challenges today with the supply of recycled plastic at reasonable prices. This is linked to the efficiency of collection systems in each country, sorting and recycling capacity but also to the incentives that are given to recycling and recycled content.
For example, the landfilling ban could be pushed forward to divert waste going to landfill and recycled content incorporation should be encouraged beyond packaging, to really increase demand for recycled plastics.
Ultimately, the right policies, at both EU and individual market level, that drive the creation of infrastructure but also create a competitive end market for recycled materials are critical if we want to encourage the use more broadly.
While some brand owners have included or pledged to include more recycled content in their packaging, many are still lagging behind. What advice would you give to these companies?
We hope that our bold rPET commitment for the Pepsi brand in Europe will encourage suppliers in the PET and plastic recycling value chain to invest in rPET capacities in the near future, not only to meet our plans but also making it available to the broader beverage industry.
Plastic waste is a major threat to our planet, and this makes it a critical priority for us to tackle. We are confident that through working collaboratively and pre-competitively, we will be able to create a world where packaging never becomes waste.