kp’s Positive Plastics Pledge web.jpg

In September 2018 kp Group (Klöckner Pentaplast), one of the world’s big players in plastic pharmaceutical, food and beverage packaging, unveiled a Positive Plastics Pledge, which articulates its sustainability strategy and commitments for the coming decade. Tim Sykes visited CEO Daniel Dayan in London to interrogate the vision and concrete plans behind this document.

If sustainability is a long-term, complex challenge requiring a holistic and joined-up response, the societal and political attention span can be frustratingly fleeting.

“Looking back over the last twenty or so years running businesses, society’s environmental demands ebb and flow,” Daniel Dayan observed. “As recently as four or five years ago there was a primary emphasis on life-cycle analysis, carbon footprint and global warming. However, right now all attention is on plastic litter. That is clearly a hugely important issue but there’s a danger that a singular focus on ocean plastics can distract from the issue of climate change, which I tend to think will prove to be the even more important challenge.” He illustrates the point with a revealing anecdote: “A few months ago we sat down with an advisor to the UK government and when we raised the subject of the carbon footprint of packaging, they said, ‘The current agenda is only about stopping plastics entering the oceans.’” (Subsequently to this interview, it has emerged that the UK Treasury is consulting on a proposal to tax plastics with less than 30 per cent recycled content.)

This tension between the complex, substantive needs of sustainability and the sometimes faddish aspect of public concern is increasingly unavoidable, and for kp this has underlined the importance of active engagement in discussions beyond its traditional business-to-business confines. This is the background to the Positive Plastics Pledge.

Long-term impacts

kp takes a broader view of environmental responsibility, and one which sits inside a framework of commercial sustainability. This means investing in materials that are likely to remain viable in the marketplace over the coming years, cutting across the fashions and shifting priorities of popular discourse. In concrete terms, kp has two major areas where it is seeking to impact on sustainability. The first of these, especially following the 2017 acquisition of LINPAC, is increasing usage of post-consumer recyclate, particularly in the food packaging market, into which kp annually supplies around five billion trays with mainly PCR content. “Globally we used more than 140,000 tons of post-consumer PET last year, and we’d have used more if there was more available,” Daniel Dayan revealed. “We’re going to leverage our size as a €2 billion turnover company to drive scale. By helping to create a market for PCR, we are providing the economic incentives for more recyclate to be generated.”

Purchasing volume is underpinned by innovation: kp is working on increasing the quantity of rPET that can be used in drinks bottle labels beyond present limitations, and expects to deliver full tray-to-tray recycling through increasing recyclate in trays to 100 per cent.

The second impact area is a continuation of traditional downgauging activities to further extend resource efficiency in formats such as sophisticated lidding films. Last year kp commissioned its first 11-layer flexible film line, which facilitates further downgauging of multilayer substrates.

Embodying both strands is kp’s rFresh Elite® product platform – a MAP mono tray and top film solution made from up to 95 per cent PCR PET. “The Elite product set is based on innovation that is fairly unique on the industrial scale,” said Mr Dayan. “On top of the recycled content, functional benefits include operating packing lines at lower temperatures, delivering a clearer product and reducing food waste in the process.”

Mr Dayan combines this success story with a characteristic note of realism. “Elite is an example of an innovative technology now generating a lot of benefits to food producers and consumers, but which was developed over many years and required a lot of capital expenditure,” he said. “We’re working on lots of similar projects but people have to understand that such innovations don’t materialise at the wave of a magic wand.”

Design for recycling – where possible

Another of kp’s key objectives is to simplify polymers for easier recycling, which the company again acknowledges as no overnight task. There’s no pledge to eliminate any particular polymer by a particular date, but rather to work on specific initiatives to find practically recyclable alternatives to today’s complex substrates.

“A central aspiration of our R&D has to be reducing the complexity of polymers,” Mr Dayan continued. “Over the years there has been an explosion of diversity in polymer grades, all of them delivering improved performance in niche applications, but at the price of making it harder to recycle together even two types of packaging ostensibly based on the same polymer. There are some areas where we identify that we can turn the dial and make a difference right now, and others where it’s going to be harder – but we’re working on it. For instance, can we imagine an effective tray/film combination comprising a single polymer that’s easy to recycle? Yes, but we don’t have the complete answer today.”

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There are some applications where practically recyclable alternatives are even further over the horizon, such as some multi-layer lidding for protein trays and PVC film for pharmaceutical blister packs. In both cases, kp are unaware of simple alternatives, and sceptical that regulators or the general public would tolerate compromises in safety or hygiene as the trade-off for recyclability. “The public might tolerate mountains of food waste but not one child contracting salmonella poisoning,” commented Mr Dayan. “We’re looking into easily recyclable alternatives but realistically, we have to say that nothing is going to change quickly because these alternatives do not exist yet.”

Meanwhile, another specific focus is on alternatives to expanded polystyrene. “EPS is a fantastic thermal insulator and very light,” observed Mr Dayan. “Paradoxically, however, it’s so light – 93 per cent air – that it’s not economically viable to recycle. Currently we are in discussion with the supply chain and recyclers and looking at alternative solutions. The way forward should become clear in the next 24 months.”

The wider ecosystem

Whatever progress an individual packaging business makes in circularity is inevitably constrained by external links in the chain: appropriate disposal and collection of plastic waste, and the existence of recycling infrastructure. kp believes that regulatory and governmental intervention will be crucial in completing the circle, both in shaping the market and priming the pump.

“At the moment it’s cheaper to export waste and to import high-quality recyclate,” said Mr Dayan. “Sometimes we hear that ocean plastic isn’t a European problem because most of the waste enters the sea from the major rivers of the developing world. Let’s not forget that we in the West still export a significant amount of waste to countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines where there is limited waste disposal infrastructure, even after China ceased to accept it. If we analysed the proportion of waste floating down Asian rivers that originated in western Europe, the findings might be very uncomfortable. The Chinese ban is actually a fantastic opportunity for Europe to invest in domestic recycling.”

He proposes emulating the way in which renewable energy has been transformed by subsidies over the last 25 years: as the scale grew, so the need for subsidy reduced, and the end result is that today’s wind turbines and solar panels are a fraction of their previous cost.

Joining up strategies across Europe would also make a big difference, though our fragmented and contested systems represent a formidable challenge for harmonisation. “There are lots of strategic questions which have to be handled carefully,” Mr Dayan stated. “For instance, in principle we support deposit return schemes – why pollute a high-grade polymer if it can be kept separate? But this raises the question of the impact of taking a high-value stream out of kerbside recycling. And how does the rise of e-commerce affect a system that relies on reverse vending machines in supermarkets? Meanwhile, across Europe different countries have different approaches and corresponding facilities. To name just three, the Netherlands has good collection rates and little landfill but relies heavily on incineration; Germany has long-established DRS delivering excellent returns of bottles but poorer collection and recycling of trays; and in the UK there is less incineration capacity, which has led to better recycling of pots, tubs and trays but relatively low overall recycling rates. These things are driven by regulators, and politicians need to take more of a holistic view.”

Of course, the most influential regulatory push has originated in Brussels, in the form of the EU Plastics Strategy. kp welcomes the general principles in terms of the key objective of driving up recycling rates. However, Mr Dayan diagnoses signs of that familiar regulatory failure to connect the dots, as reflected in the fact that the plastic waste plan was developed in isolation from the EU’s food waste strategy.

“The devil is in the detail and there’s still a lot of opacity around definitions that will be pivotal in turning broad strategy into law,” he said. “For example, it’s still not clear to us whether a meat tray is defined as a single-use plastic. Banning such an item would be highly problematic causing food waste to rocket. Another glaring omission is that it’s not yet clear whether taxes on plastics will apply to virgin materials only or also, counter-productively, to recyclate.”

Meanwhile, when kp and other packaging manufacturers use recycled content in food-grade applications they are dependent on approval from the European Food Standards Agency – but EFSA over the course of around a decade has failed to issue definitive guidelines. As a result, any investment in PCR food packaging has been on the basis of temporary letters of approval. If the EU wishes to transform the investment climate, it would do well to put pressure on regulatory organisations to bring clarity to standards.

Positive Plastics Pledge

And so – the Pledge. In the context of the feverish debate around packaging and sustainability and the desperate need for collective action driven by wide and long-term perspectives, kp has made a public statement of its stance. At a time when some organisations have rushed to make eye-catching but superficial commitments, this is refreshingly grounded in its commitments.

“Along with the rest of the industry, we have a role to play in educating and communicating about the challenges we face,” commented Mr Dayan. “This is an area where we fell behind in the past, perhaps put off by the risks of sticking our head above the parapet. What we’ve said and what we’ve promised in the Positive Plastics Pledge is entirely consistent with the strategy we have been pursuing for years but we’ve tried to articulate it much more simply and clearly for employees, customers and consumers.”

The document contains four pillars. The first, ‘Innovate’ outlines the commitment to putting its R&D resources into downgauging and maximising use of recycled content. ‘Accelerate’ sets out kp’s pledge to only use materials that are practically recyclable or sustainably sourced by 2028, as well as to simplify polymers to ease recycling. ‘Educate’ (a pillar manifested by the Pledge itself) promises to promote the benefits of circularity in plastics and engage with society around responsible disposal. Finally, in ‘Activate’ kp pledges to lead discussions and initiatives to make collection and recycling infrastructure fit for purpose.

“It can be hard to get the holistic argument across to consumers,” Mr Dayan concluded. “Cucumber packaging is a classic example of plastic film making an overwhelmingly positive impact on the environment, but as a proposition it seems counter-intuitive to the public. The Positive Plastics Pledge is an attempt to contribute to this, setting out the environmental and scientific logic behind our business decisions. We see this as a starting point for hopefully a fruitful dialogue with industry, consumers, regulators and environmental organisations.”