Canadian companies including Loblaw Companies Ltd. Loblaw, Metro Inc. Metro, Save-On-Foods and Maple Leaf Foods, have signed a global pledge alongside some of the world’s largest retailers and manufacturers, promising to redesign plastic packaging to make it more recyclable.
The pledge is part of a plastic waste initiative by the Consumer Goods Forum, an industry group. Its members include some of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods companies, such as the Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., Unilever plc, Nestlé S.A. and others, as well as retailer Walmart Inc.
The companies are pledging by 2025 to improve the design of plastic packaging for everyday products such as shampoo, household cleaners and soda bottles. Among their priorities are to use transparent polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is easier to recycle than opaque coloured packaging. The group also wants to strip out elements that make packages difficult or impossible to recycle, such as certain adhesives, black plastic, and materials that degrade into microplastics.
“We’re in a really exciting period for tackling the plastics problem,” Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston said in an interview Wednesday. He cited government pressure to improve recycling systems, growing consumer demand for sustainable products, and pressure from investors for companies to articulate sustainability policies. “You have a combination of forces all looking to deliver the same objective that leads to, I think, better policy and more decisive action.”
Plastic is a popular material for product packaging, because it is low cost to produce and lightweight, making it cheaper to ship. But it has a high environmental cost at the end of its life. In Canada, only 9 per cent of the three million tonnes thrown away each year is recycled. As part of its announced goal to reduce plastic waste, the federal government has signalled a plan to establish requirements for recycled content in product packaging.
According to a study by Deloitte for the federal environment department, 47 per cent of total plastic waste discarded in Canada in 2016 came from packaging.
The members of the initiative include companies that produce a significant amount of plastic waste currently. In a recent audit of more than 340,000 pieces of plastic waste in 55 countries, advocacy organization Break Free From Plastic identified 63 per cent that were marked with an identifiable brand name. The group released the results this week. The three top waste producers identified in the survey were Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Nestlé. Other members of the coalition were also named in the study.
In addition to designing packages that have a better chance of being recycled, the industry group also hopes to work on developing more “circular” systems for plastic waste. That means reusing materials, not just recycling them.
For example, a number of major companies are testing out a packaging return-and-reuse program called Loop, which was developed by Trenton, N.J.-based recycling company Terracycle. Similar to the old milk or beer bottle returns, Loop wants to divert used packages from landfills, sanitize them and return them to the companies that produced those packages to be reused. Some consumer packaged goods companies have redesigned products in more durable packaging to test out the system. Loblaw is planning its own test with Loop – originally scheduled for this year – starting in early 2021.
Companies must invest in significant reduction of plastic waste and in reusable packaging, Agnès Le Rouzic, oceans and plastics campaigner at Greenpeace Canada said in a statement on Wednesday, adding that more recyclable plastics are not a sustainable solution to the problem.
“It’s crystal clear that the priority should be about phasing out single-use plastic in the first place, yet these companies continue to invest in false solutions like recycling when they know recycling infrastructure for plastics has very limited capacity to process the massive amount of plastic packaging they produce and sell all year long,” Ms. Le Rouzic said.
Questions about environmental, social and corporate governance, or ESG, are becoming more common in meetings with investors, Mr. Weston said.
“Any company that is unable to effectively speak to its ESG policies, measurements and action plans, struggles with investors. And I think that will increasingly be the case,” he said.
Many retailers play a role both as buyers of products, and as manufacturers because they sell their own private brands, such as President’s Choice at Loblaw stores and Great Value at Walmart.
“We have to do this for our own private brands but we absolutely can influence our suppliers,” said Rob Nicol, vice-president of corporate affairs at Walmart Canada.
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