In order to improve their plastic packaging operations, PwC consulting team Strategy& asserts that food and beverage companies should consider lightweighting and adopting biobased materials, where appropriate; develop consistent design-for-recycling standards; and form strategic partnerships with recycling providers to gain access to high-quality recyclate.

Bottles, ready-meal trays, and films for fresh produce are among the many plastic packaging applications that are still widely utilized by brands, which is attributed to their cost-effectiveness and functional properties.

Yet consumers and regulators increasingly question brands’ reliance on plastic packaging. Ipsos recently released a survey in which 82% of respondents leaned towards product packaging that contains as little plastic as possible, and three-quarters believed that single-use plastics should be banned altogether.

As such, food and beverage companies are facing increasing pressure to transition into new materials. Strategy& observes that, ‘to win in packaging, businesses must create a sustainable plastics ecosystem – while keeping a close eye on costs.’

However, according to Strategy& UK director Tom Wright, “plastics are the trickiest packaging material of all to get right… there is no single approach that works everywhere.”


In order to help food and beverage companies cut down on the amount of plastic packaging used in their operations, Strategy& recommends a combination of two pathways.

Lightweighting is said to have contributed towards material cost savings over the past thirty years, specifically lowering the financial burden of materials, production, and transport. According to Strategy&, removing only a few grams from the average plastic bottle or container makes a big difference to the amount of virgin resin input required from fossil feedstocks and lowers emissions.

Its benchmarking suggests that, between 2008 and 2022, the average weight of a standard single-use 500ml carbonated soft drink bottle made from PET decreased by 33%.

On the other hand, lighter packaging can contribute to leakage and potentially have an adverse effect on recycling efforts due to a decrease in its end-of-life value.

Multi-material packaging structures have also been utilized in response to ‘slowing efficiency gains in single-material formats’, but these are difficult to identify in waste sorting facilities and difficult to recycle using existing infrastructure. As such, they can cause bottlenecks in the pursuit of circularity.

Food and beverage brands must therefore balance emissions savings and costs without impacting the post-use recovery of a packaging material.

Strategy&’s second recommendation is a transition into alternative packaging materials, e.g. biobased plastics. Reducing emissions by an estimated 20-30%, the process of sourcing plastic materials from biomass and other renewable sources is expected to divert the plastics industry away from fossil feedstocks.

Biobased solutions are thought to match fossil-based plastics in terms of chemical and physical properties, which would mean that the existing value chain will require few adjustments to embrace the new materials. Even so, they are currently between 20% and 50% more expensive than virgin plastics, which is slowing their progress in the packaging industry.

Consumer perception is also slowing their adoption. Even when the plastic is derived from plants, the image of plastic waste in the environment is enough to dissuade consumers – and, while they drive down production-related emissions, these plastics do not fix the problem of end-of-life plastic waste.

Therefore, Strategy& asserts that material replacements should proceed on a case-by-case basis. They should take life cycle emissions into account and remain ‘limited to targeted applications where the sustainability benefits tangibly outweigh any drawbacks.’

Mechanically recycled PET may result in lower carbon emissions than recycled glass and aluminium in certain beverage applications, for example.


Strategy& goes on to say that the design of a plastic pack is ‘the most important driver of recyclability’ – yet there is a wide range of plastic formats and materials on the market today. This variation threatens economies of scale in terms of collection, sorting, and reprocessing.

In terms of packaging material and format, the inconsistencies from one pack to the next can impact its identification. Multi-material formats can be difficult to separate, while typical cleaning technologies can have trouble removing different ink and adhesives.

Some materials may only be utilized in low volumes, meaning the economic viability of investing in the appropriate recycling technology goes down.

Standardized design and material guidelines are raised as a potential way forward. The European PET Bottle Platform (EPBP), for instance, implements up-to-date research and technological developments into its standards for PET bottle design.

Establishing a similar, industry-led initiative for all kinds of plastic packaging is expected to result in economies of scale for after-use processes. It is also hoped to help the recycling value chain confidently invest in the relevant infrastructure.

Collaboration and partnerships

Improved design alone will not drive circularity, Strategy& explains. Recycling and reprocessing capacities must also improve to ensure that plastic packaging actually gets recycled.

While integrated waste management companies currently have access to feedstock supply, new industry players are held back by restricted access and high CAPEX costs.

Among the roadblocks to expanding capacity are volatile feedstock inputs and offtake prices, preventing an infrastructure-style investment. When it comes to securing high-quality feedstock, waste exports, downcycled feedstock, and inadequate collection processes are causing issues.

A lack of certainty around developing policy has also caused confusion around how much feedstock will be available. Deposit return schemes are one example of a system expected to increase volumes, yet various European countries are slow to adopt the new technology or actively resisting its implementation.

Strategy& underlines the importance of ‘finding a middle ground for feedstock value’. It notes that bottles see lower collection and recycling rates due to their low value, while high prices are widening the margin between virgin and recycled plastics, which restricts food and beverage businesses’ access to high-quality recyclate.

On top of that, demand for non-food grade plastics – from the textiles industry, for example – has apparently drowned out calls for food-grade processing. Strategy& highlights that these needs must be balanced to successfully establish and expand mechanical reprocessing facilities for food-grade plastics.

It calls for the mechanical reprocessing industry to work with food and beverage companies to drive investment and strengthen the recycling value chain. Brands in the food and beverage space are expected to develop long-term offtake agreements that would solidify demand for food-grade plastics, ensure consistent cash flows for reprocessors, encourage investment, and lower the cost of capital.

Some food and beverage brands have directly invested in the development of reprocessing facilities. In turn, they have guaranteed their access to a supply of recycled plastics – a move hoped to prove demand certainty and help other brands scale up capacity.

One example of this took place in 2012, when Coca-Cola and EcoPlastics – known today as Clean Tech and owned by Plastipak – signed a joint venture to build a food-grade PET reprocessor in Lincolnshire, England. Another five-year offtake agreement was then signed in 2017 to secure Coca-Cola’s access to rPET supply.

Reportedly, the strategic partnership helped Coca-Cola implement 50% rPET content into its packaging in the UK.

What’s next?

In the current plastic packaging landscape, Strategy& lays out three routes that, in its view, food and beverage companies could benefit from in relation to their packaging strategies.

Firstly, they should evaluate the pros and cons of transitioning into new packaging materials and formats, making sure that their plastic reduction efforts align with decarbonization and circular economy principles in practice.

A risk-sharing approach should be taken to collaboration and investment. This should include an agreement on standardized design to incentivize financial commitments and streamline new innovations.

Also, businesses across the value chain should come together to improve capacities for recycling and reprocessing. Food and beverage businesses must acquire the necessary volumes for their own packaging needs, Strategy& emphasizes, and long-term agreements with recycling providers is expected to signal high demand, drive investment, and increase the amount of plastic recycled.

Players in the European natural mineral water and soft drink industries made a similar call in the lead-up to the plenary vote on the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, encouraging MEPs to implement a priority access right to food-contact recyclates for drinks packaging.

On behalf of food packaging, fruit and vegetable supply chain organizations spoke out at Fruit Logistica 2024 – condemning the singling out of fresh produce in blanket plastic bans and supporting a ‘non-ideological, data-driven’ approach to EU regulation.

However, developments have also been made. Maria Vera-Duran, project manager at EuRIC, spoke about the EU-funded CIMPA project at the Sustainable Packaging Summit last year. This project proposes innovative solutions to develop the first value chain for the recycling of multilayer plastics from the food industry and agriculture.

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