The general public has been waking up to plastic pollution. At the end of 2017 David Attenborough’s final episode of Blue Planet II shocked millions of viewers, bringing home to many for the very first time just how much our reliance on single-use plastic is polluting the planet.

The UN says 79% of all the plastic waste ever produced is still around, in landfill, in dumps or in the natural environment. Only 9% of all plastic waste has ever been recycled. The figures are shocking, but it’s also striking what a relatively recent problem this is. Plastic production in the 1950s-1970s was fairly low, but by the 1990s it had tripled, rising again in the 2000s more than the previous 40 years altogether. Blue Planet’s footage of plastic’s poisoning effects on marine life from albatrosses to whales and dolphins was deeply distressing but something positive has come out of showing it on primetime TV. Many global businesses have vastly stepped up their game in tackling plastic waste in response to public concern. So as some of the biggest producers of single-use plastics, what are some of the world’s biggest food and drink companies doing to change their use of plastic?

Both Coco-Cola and PepsiCo cut ties with America’s Plastics Industry Association this year. The organisation, representing manufacturers, has lobbied for US states to prohibit bans on plastic bags across the country.

On June 27th 2019 PepsiCo announced an array of changes to cut their use of plastic and greenhouse emissions. The company’s premium LIFEWTR brand will be packaged in 100% rPET, a common recycled plastic, and its bubly sparkling water will no longer be packaged in plastic. They’re also testing a switch to aluminium cans for AQUAFINA® water in America. PepsiCo’s goals are to make 100% of its packaging recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025 and use 25% recycled plastic content in all its plastic packaging.

Coca-Cola Great Britain and Coca-Cola European Partners announced that Glacéau Smartwater will move its entire range into 100% rPET bottles and it will double the amount of rPET used in all other plastic bottles in early 2020. The brand said that it is also aiming to double the amount of recycled PET used in all 20 brands using plastic bottles to at least 50%. These measures will cut the use of virgin plastic in Great Britain by 23,000 tonnes in 2020.

Nestle, the world’s biggest selling food and beverage company are also taking ambitious steps to rethink their packaging and use of plastic. Plastic straws are being phased out, chocolate milk brand Nesquik will be in paper packaging, and the company has established the Nestle Institute of Packaging Sciences in Switzerland to invent and test new packaging for its 2,000 brands. Plastic bottles are undoubtedly as big an issue for them as they are for Coca-Cola and Pepsico. CEO Mark Schneider has said: “While we are committed to pursuing recycling options where feasible, we know that 100% recyclability is not enough to successfully tackle the plastics waste crisis”. He went on: “We believe in the value of recyclable and compostable paper-based materials and biodegradable polymers, in particular where recycling infrastructure does not exist.” Nestle have also announced a breakthrough from closer to home – their R&D development centre in York. Nestle’s Yes! snack bars will now come in a recyclable paper wrapper, a world first because the company’s ‘high speed flow wrap cold seal packaging line’ has previously only been suitable for plastic films and laminates.

Danone has announced that it aims to make 100% of its packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025, and also wants to increase recycling rates by assisting in the development of recycling infrastructure. The company says “we are working to design our products to optimize material use and eliminate waste. This means developing new alternative delivery or reuse models, while also taking action to eliminate items that are problematic (in that they are unlikely to be recycled) or unnecessary”.

McDonalds have also set environmental targets for 2025. By that year it wants 100% of its customer packaging to come from renewable, recycled or certified sources and to have recycling available in all of its restaurants. It’s a move that has been praised by the World Wildlife Fund amongst others. In June, McDonalds announced that in the UK, salads would no longer be served in plastic but in cardboard containers and McFlurrys will no longer have plastic lids. Beth Hart, Supply Chain Director, McDonald’s UK & Ireland said: “Removing plastic lids from the McFlurry, and introducing new cardboard packaging for salads, will save nearly 500 metric tonnes of plastic a year. It’s the latest step in our sustainability journey.” And let’s hope it’s more successful than the brand has been with its straws, as it’s recently emerged that after cutting out (recyclable) plastic straws, the new, thick paper ones can’t currently be recycled, though the company is working to find a solution.

To use an appropriate metaphor, the recent efforts of McDonalds and the rest is just the tip of the iceberg and many more food and drink companies as well as supermarkets have also started a drive to cut the use of plastic. But as they move towards using more recycled plastic and also plastics that can be ‘home compostable’ or ‘industrially compostable’, there needs to be a massive education piece for the general public so that people can have the confidence to do the right thing with their plastic waste. Only by empowering the public with the knowledge they need will we see a more effective change in behaviour.

In the UK a British Science Association survey of 2,000 people found that the main reason for not recycling was uncertainty about what can and cannot be recycled. There’s also confusion over what kinds of plastics can be recycled and this is also made enormously complicated because every local authority has different recycling plants with different criteria. For instance, though all accept plastic bottles, only some collect plastic tubs, and only 22% will take black plastics of the sort ready meals come in. In addition, a lot of plastic put into recycling with the best of intentions, ends up in landfill because it’s contaminated – people don’t realise that food containers, shampoo bottles and the like need to be rinsed out if they’re to be accepted. If more plastic is going to be successfully recycled there needs to be more consistency so that people can be confident that whether they’re at home, at work or or on holiday on the other side of the country, they know what to do with it. Only by empowering the public with the knowledge they need will we see a more effective change in behaviour.

The good news is that the government is planning to simplify the current recycling system in England so there’s a consistent approach across local authorities. The government have said: “We will work with local authorities, waste management businesses and others to develop more detailed regulations and guidance for implementing consistency in recycling. We expect the measures to come into effect from 2023.” There also needs to be much better information out there, with consistent messages coming from manufacturers, local authorities and the government, so people fully understand what to do with their plastic waste.

At a time when we’re constantly being bombarded by bad news: flooding in Yorkshire, forest fires in Siberia, melting glaciers in Greenland, it’s good to know that ambitious steps are being taken by our biggest food and drink manufacturers to cut the use of plastic and come up with new solutions to replace it. There’s still a long way to go in terms of the infrastructure of reuse and recycling. But collectively, if governments, local authorities, regulators, food & drink companies and consumers can work together there is hope that sooner rather than later we’ll be able to radically cut our use of plastic. By creating better waste infrastructure and putting out consistent messages, we can make sure that what we do use ends up being recycled or reused in the most efficient, environmentally responsible way possible.

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