April 18, 2018

Plastic sustainability in consumer industries

Most people have heard of the three Rs of the environment – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. As the global waste problem continues to grow, many have started adding additional Rs, such as Renew and Recover. Although significant attention has been paid to conventional recycling of plastics, only a small portion of plastics produced are currently recycled.  While increasing conventional recycling rates is a priority, with more attention being focused on a creating a circular economy, new focus is being put on conversion technologies, which can complement recycling.

The overarching vision of the circular economy is the reduction of plastics into natural systems and decoupling from fossil feedstock in the plastic production process.  The circular economy will be realized by a combination of technology innovation, and with the collaboration between governments and businesses.

There are several approaches to dealing with the problem of waste disposal, in particular waste generated by plastics.  These approaches include reduction and sorting at source, recycling, incineration and landfilling.

Sustainability is driven from two angles, by the consumer and through government policy.  

Plastic sustainability in consumer industries

Consumer- facing industries, such as retail, consumer packaged products and automotive have been naturally the first to be affected by the consumer push for sustainability.  As these consumer-facing industries have increasingly addressed their sustainability practices, initiatives are being pushed back up the value chain.  While the economic benefit of investments such as energy efficiency improvements have the potential to be tangible and immediate, the impact of major reformulations and other expensive process changes may be less certain.

Leading consumer packaged goods companies (CPG) have embraced corporate sustainability, from setting mid to long term goals to driving alignment with business objectives.  CPG companies focus on reducing the consumption of packaging materials, increasing the amount of recycled materials in the package itself, and increasing the amount of packaging which can be recycled.  In addition to aiming for improved sustainability in product use, the CPG industry is also targeting improved end-of-life implications for their products.

To ensure continued business growth in a consumer environment highly focused on sustainability, industries located downstream of the chemical industry are altering their approach to directly address the demands from their clientele.  Consumer packaged goods (CPG) are receiving a lot of pressure to offer “green” products.  For example:

  • Proctor & Gamble is the world’s largest consumer packaged goods company.  P&G has led the industry wide “Holy Grail” project aimed at developing an additional dimension for sorting plastics at material recovery facilities and/or recycling plants.  This will allow the reduction of plastics for packaging and improve quality of recycled material.
  • Unilever is an Anglo-Dutch consumer goods company co-headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands and London, United Kingdom.  In 2010, Unilever launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP).  The ULSP Waste & Packaging commitment is to halve the waste associated with the disposal of its products by 2020.  This reduction will be achieved through a combination of discontinuing brands/products whose packaging is not widely recycled, improving the recycling and recovery of packaged materials.  If successful, Unilever will be a strong driver of sustainability, engaging all players across the value chain and leading other companies to follow.
  • Johnson & Johnson is an American multinational medical devices, pharmaceutical, and consumer good manufacturing company.  J&J are to increase the recyclability of consumer product packaging to 90+ percent (on a weight basis) via design and partnerships in 5 key markets where mature recycling infrastructure exists (U.S., UK, France, Germany and Canada). In other markets, where recycling infrastructure is less mature, J&J will engage in partnerships to advance material recovery and recycling efforts.

The consumer packaged goods industry is pushing sustainability programs both up and downstream of its operations and is showing clear commitment to sustainability in their own activities. Retailers have little direct impact on their business’s sustainability aside from in their own operations. They are highly focused on driving more sustainability up the value chain, holding CPG suppliers to high sustainability standards and increasing the proportion of highly sustainable goods on their shelves.

In the automotive sector, the largest sustainability challenge is associated with the use of vehicles. End of life solutions are of moderate focus for the industry.  Vehicle recycling primarily  impacts players downstream of the automotive supply chain as it requires recycling infrastructure to be in place.

To achieve a systematic shift towards a new plastic circular economy, existing players in the CPG, retail and automotive industry will need to be guided by a collaborative and concerted initiative that identifies the challenges and opportunities in the road ahead.  One such initiative is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity that has emerged on the forefront on the circular economy initiative putting it on the agenda for businesses, governments and in academia.  Danone, Google, H&M, Intesa Sanpaolo, NIKE, Inc, Philips, Renault and Unilever have all partnered with the foundation.  Solvay joins as the only global partner from the chemical sector.  However, the global plastics industry supports the foundation through the World Plastics Council, an association of 20 leading, global, polymer producers who represent 80% of the global polymer production. As downstream industries sectors increasingly improve their own sustainability profiles, shifting pressure upstream from their own operations, it will eventually influence the operations of chemical companies.


Ryen Dwivedy, Senior Analyst