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FI Insights

Sustainability Trends: What’s Driving the Anti-Plastics Movement?

January 31, 2020
Author: Nancy Hasson

The sight of massive islands of plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean are just a small sample of unforgettable images that have heightened consumer awareness of the excessive plastic pollution both on land and sea.

Because only 9 percent of the plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled, there will be around 12 billion tons of plastic litter in landfills and the environment by 2050.

Plastics don’t biodegrade. They only break down, slowly, into smaller fragments called microplastics, which are making their way into our food chain and subsequently into our bodies. The health risks of microplastics are not fully understood, but anti-plastic sentiment is already pushing sustainability trends in packaging.

The movement to reduce waste from plastic packaging is driven by government regulation, as well as by changing consumer preferences. These preferences are driving brand owners to replace plastic with renewable and recyclable alternatives and to address plastic in their sustainability goals.

Let’s take a deeper look at those three leading markets drivers:

Legislation

To address the environmental crisis, government regulation has increased in many countries to help drive change and reduce the impact of plastics.

Certain single-use plastics (e.g., drinking straws, coffee stirrers, plastic bottles, plates, cups, utensils, shopping bags) have been identified as the leading contributors to plastic pollution and are the target of most legislation. While bans on polyethylene shopping bags have been in place in many parts of the world, the European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK) are leading the way in implementing wider bans on single-use plastics:

Consumers

Public awareness of plastic waste in the environment has risen to an all-time high.

Google Trends’ “Interest over Time” index shows interest in plastic waste and pollution quadrupled in 2019 compared to 2016. A few findings from the 2018 Paper & Packaging Consumer Trends report confirm this:

  • 64 percent of Americans say they prefer paper food packaging over plastic or Styrofoam
  • 48 percent try to reduce their use of plastic items such as straws, cups or bags
  • 65 percent say that sustainability of paper-based packaging is more relevant to them today than five years ago

Consumer research firm Mintel predicts sustainability is among the top five trends that will impact the packaging industry over the coming year: “Brands will be called to keep marine conservation at the forefront of packaging development.”

Brand Owners & Retailers

Packaging trend-watchers say the sustainable packaging trend is here to stay, and brands are making serious commitments to act upon the anti-plastics outcry.

Several well-known consumer goods companies have committed to reducing plastic content in their packaging:

  • Nestlé reported in 2017 that 39 percent of its packaging materials are from renewable sources, primarily paper and board.
  • Apple has a comprehensive paper and packaging strategy, which explains how it reduced plastic content of its iPhone 7 package by 84 percent versus the iPhone 6s, with a switch from plastic trays to fiber-based packaging. (Apple has also actively promoted the environmental benefits of global working forests, and has even acquired timberland that is sustainably managed for the production of paper fiber that goes into its packaging.)
  • Samsung announced plans last January to replace plastic packaging with paper and other renewable materials, even if the alternate materials are higher cost.
Another indicator of the importance of replacing plastic is the number of innovations in renewable, eco-friendly packaging, which are being announced at a fast clip, for example:
  • Frugal Cup, a coffee cup with a food grade plastic liner that separates readily to facilitate recycling with other papers, and Suzano’s Bluecup Bio cupstock, are 100 percent biodegradable with no plastic barrier.
  • Durapulp, a composite consisting of wood fibers and biopolymer PLA, is the material in Huhtamaki’s new fiber-based ready meal package.
  • KM Packaging’s Kpeel lidding film is a seal and peel solution for pulp and pressed board trays.
  • SIG’s new paper straw is strong enough to pierce the hole of aseptic cartons.
  • Kotkamills’ plastic-free AEGLE™ dispersion coated barrier board is fully recyclable and suitable for food packaging.

Large retailers, especially in Europe, are also joining the movement to reduce plastic packaging.

For example, UK retailers Iceland and Lidl recently announced goals to remove plastic from certain product lines. In February, French retailer Carrefour signed a French national pact to phase out plastic packaging by 2025, along with other companies including L’Oréal, Nestlé, Danone and Unilever.

In 2018, supermarket chain EkoPlaza opened plastic-free shopping aisles in 74 branches.

To learn how sustainability trends could affect the pulp and paper industry, click below to read Fisher International’s complete study “From Plastic to Paper How Will Sustainability Trends Impact the Pulp and Paper Industry?”

Sustainability in Pulp & Paper

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