In our latest opinion piece, Edward Kosior, CEO and founder of Nextek, gives us his views on where plastic packaging sustainability is at – and the road ahead.


As Ellen MacArthur’s Global Commitment members strive towards ensuring plastic is more readily reused, recycled, or composted, and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment, we are finally starting to see brands and retailers gathering momentum in the sustainability stakes.

The Foundation’s latest commitment report shows that L’Oreal Cosmetics uses 15.8% of post-consumer recycled content in their plastic packaging whilst the Coca-Cola Company uses 11.5%. Meanwhile, Unilever has committed to collecting and processing more plastic packaging than they sell, and PepsiCo have pledged that 100% of their packaging will be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025. Other global giants are slower to follow with Nestle only using 2% of post-consumer recycled content in their plastic packaging and Mars not using any. 

Higher recycling expectations

But things are improving, and in fact there is an emergence of brands that are going beyond relying on general post-consumer plastic waste to feed their recycling requirements as they explore ways to include their own post-consumer products back into their new packaging. One such brand is Unilever’s TRESemmé, which strives to use far more PCR plastic in the future and recapture its own packaging.

As it points out, the biggest challenge is the limited availability of high-quality recycled waste materials (owing to high demand on the market), particularly in developing and emerging markets. Despite this, in Australia and New Zealand, TRESemmé shampoo and conditioner bottles are now made with 50% post-consumer Australian recycled plastic.

Amplified recycling

This shift in mindset is encouraging and demonstrates that game-changer brands are recognising the potential in closing the loop on their own packaging. Fueled by the realisation that the more recycling-friendly their design becomes, the more likely they will be to boost production of hard-to-come-by high-quality recycled resin, brand owners are already taking a keen interest in which recycled plastic resin their converters are purchasing.

This trend is evident at Viridor’s recently launched state-of-the-art Resource Recovery facility in Avonmouth. The plant, that has the capacity to process 1.6 billion items of plastic per year, was designed and commissioned by Nextek and has the capacity to fully recycle more than 90% of the plastics that had previously been exported.

Rise of the sustainable supermarket

And now UK supermarkets have started joining European retailers’ sustainability momentum. Co-oP in Switzerland have had collection points for packaging and bottles for over a decade, in Finland Kesko is close to becoming carbon neutral and in Germany, Lidl is now the nation’s biggest PET recycler.

In the last 2 years in the UK, we have seen a welcome expansion of supermarkets providing customers with shop-and-drop facilities to recycle their flexible packaging and this momentum is growing. Supermarkets are waking up to the fact that to make better use of plastic packaging waste in new products, the world needs to help the recyclers turn it back into high-quality recycled mono-polymers that can be easily reused in new products.

We now have Morrisons which is set to become the first supermarket to own its own recycling operations following the acquisition of a significant stake in a new recycling site in Fife destined to reprocess ‘hard-to-recycle’ soft plastics.

Sainsbury’s front-of-store flexible plastic recycling points are focusing on the awkward to recycle packaging such as polypropylene film and Tesco’s goal is to collect more than 1000 tonnes of soft plastics a year to recycle it back into products and packaging sold in their stores. UK retailers are taking their environmental responsibility seriously.

Supermarkets face sustainability issues on multiple fronts. From powering their shops, refrigerators, delivery vans and depots to packaging their products and handling their waste, they have huge carbon footprints. They also play a key role when it comes to influencing both consumers and suppliers – what they stock, as well as how it’s labelled and priced, can all make a difference.

As they address these issues, they need to increasingly tap into their Life Cycle Assessments to hone the best possible outcomes and solutions to meaningfully reduce their carbon footprint. Ideally, they would avoid making changes that might be marketing-driven choices rather than low carbon footprint options and lead to even greater problems in circularity.

Certainly, their sustainability focus needs to take into account every touchpoint of the product or packaging that is being produced - from concept to end of life - every detail has to count. We can’t afford to let any impact of the LCA go undetected or ignored.

The invisible thread

This emerging new model of responsibility for both brands and supermarkets is already being woven into our shopping experience - but these fundamental changes are, in the most part, occurring behind the scenes.

Quite apart from technology’s role in facilitating sorting - such as using invisible fluorescent markers on labels to differentiate post-consumer food packaging through to the crucial decontamination phase to turn recycled plastic back into valuable food-grade resins the retail ecosystem is already on the cusp of major innovations.

Machine learning is poised to help retailers optimise markdowns on products approaching expiry dates by automatically adjusting prices in the aisles. AI is being deployed to optimise reverse logistics waste, with the likes of IKEA mapping its entire store, fulfilment, and distribution network using AI and data analytics to identify the next-best possible location for returned items and Alibaba’s AI-based routing algorithms to reduce travel distance for their logistics by 30%.

Retailers and brands are at a strategic inflection point that requires optimising their entire modus operandi. Stakeholders are now realising the urgent need to unlock the value in the materials that are often still considered to belong in a ‘waste’ stream. It is a sobering fact that globally 80% of the packaging currently produced still goes to landfill or is potentially destined for waste-to-energy. Yet approximately 1 tonne of CO2 is saved for every tonne of plastic material diverted from landfill to be recycled.

Sustainable responsibility

Thankfully we are entering a new era of societal response to recycling driven by many brands and supermarkets that are taking sustainability very seriously. Their focus now goes beyond the environment to include social responsibility and corporate governance (ESG).

In part, these steps are reactions to changing regulations, such as China’s 2018 ban on plastic waste imports and the European Union’s member state surcharge of €800 per tonne on packaging without 30% recycled content. At the same time and even more importantly, retail decision-makers are motivated by a genuine desire to create a positive impact for the world, along with value for their businesses.

Producer responsibility is now firmly in the driving seat and the next five years will certainly be a game-changing period.