Lead the charge

26 May 2020

With the world stumbling to a crisis point in its over use of plastic, especially single-use, a drastic change in direction is needed. Mutinationals like Nestlé are leading the way in innovating new materials, setting industry targets, finessing the process and efficiency of recycling, and tweaking consumer behaviour. John Fortune examines how it is attempting this mammoth task

Before the ever-unfolding impact of Covid-19, the major industry topic in recent years has been the environmental impact of packaging. Opinion has concerned itself with ways to moderate and vastly reduce waste, both in the manufacture of and in post-use disposal.

Major brands have been working tirelessly on this subject, and Nestlé, as one of the biggest, is no exception. According to a press statement released last year from the corporation, “From the oceans to the deserts, the world depends on our ability to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste. “It depends on our ability to create a world in the very near future where every single piece of packaging is recyclable or reusable. And it depends on our ability to create a world where  rubbish isn’t sent to landfill, but is turned into something new.”

It came as part of a new commitment on the part of Nestlé to improve the environmental performance of packaging, aimed at cutting pollution from plastic packaging waste. The company has set a remarkable ambition of 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025.

The company has reacted to the sad reality that around 10 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans, rivers and waterways every year. Although plastic packaging is vital for keeping food safe and fresh, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure less is used, that what is used is fully recyclable, and that recycling systems are available around the world. Xavier Caro, who works on developing new packaging materials at Nestlé’s Product Technology Centre in Germany, sums up its approach. “I start by asking if packaging for a product is absolutely necessary. If yes, I then consider all options for reuse or recycling,” he explained in an article on Nestlé’s website.

Packaging isn’t going away

Packaging itself is vital. From protecting food from damage, germs, pests or contamination in transportation, to providing vital information about nutritional information, ingredients and serving – all of this stems from the package.

However, new technologies and innovation means there are more environmental options available, allowing the move from a single-use product, which ultimately ends in landfill, to a new material that can be reduced, reused, upcyled or recycled – and does not leave a mess.

For Nestlé, each time a new prototype for packaging is made, it’s tested to see how easy and convenient it is for customers to use and store. But, if environmental performance is not better than the original version, it will be not be used. “We go back to the beginning and try something else,” Caro said. But developing new packaging that is environmentally friendly and fully recyclable is only part of Caro’s challenge. “It’s not good enough just to design the pack and make it recyclable,” he continued. “It is important to establish how this packaging will be collected and recycled too.” In Europe that is a relatively straightforward process, he explained, because companies can work alongside established recycling schemes. But in less developed countries, the company needs to work with local partners to ensure recycling is a reality as well as a mere possibility.

Nestlé is a participant in the New Plastics Economy, which advises developing countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where marine litter is a significant problem – especially single-use. The initiative, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, aims to rethink the future of plastics by applying the principles of the circular economy. It brings together key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging.

One recent example of alternate materials being deployed to reduce plastic dependency occurred last year, when Nestlé announced the launch of its YES! snack bars in a new recyclable paper wrapper. In a breakthrough innovation, a confectionery bar has been packaged in paper using a high-speed flow wrap technology.

This launch unlocked the potential for recyclable paper packaging to be widely used in the confectionery industry. Until then, high-speed production of shelf-stable snacks was only achieved using plastic films and laminates. Now, paper can be used at large scale while guaranteeing product quality and freshness over the entire shelf life.

The paper is also from sustainable sources, and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Patrice Bula, head of strategic business units, marketing and sales at Nestlé, said in the accompanying press statement: “Consumers are looking for more natural and sustainable options when they choose a snack, both in terms of ingredients and packaging. We are now relaunching them carefully wrapped in paper, making the packaging easy to recycle, and avoiding plastic waste.”

Top-down directive

The multinational’s commitment is to make 100% packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, while reducing the use of virgin plastics by a third in the same time frame. A vision set out in January this year stated, “We will... [be] leading the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics, while accelerating the development of innovative packaging solutions. We are determined to look at every option to solve complex packaging challenges and embrace multiple solutions that can have an impact now.”

These solutions include introducing new delivery systems and innovative business models – like reusable or refill systems – to reduce its use of single-use plastics, and using recyclable paper- based materials and compostable packaging where plastics recycling is not a viable option. It is also pioneering alternative materials, as the company announced earlier this year that it would invest up to £1.66 billion to lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics, and is looking to accelerate the development of innovative, sustainable packaging. Most plastics are difficult to recycle for food packaging, leading to a limited supply of food-grade recycled plastics. It will also launch a sustainable packaging venture fund that focuses on start-up companies that are developing innovative packaging solutions. This is to be called the Nestlé Institute for Packaging Sciences, and will be set up to develop sustainable packaging materials and collaborate with industry partners to scale-up research and innovation. Through the Institute, Nestlé is currently exploring a range of innovations, including new paper-based materials, as well as biodegradable/ compostable polymers that are also recyclable. The programme indicates the seriousness for which the corporation is willing to take responsibility for its own impact. It’s exactly the type of drive the industry, and the planet, needs

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