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Packaging Possibilities: Why Does Mars Support the Global Plastics Treaty?

Image courtesy of Food Tree Images / Alamy Stock Photo Snickers-bar-Alamy-EXXXW6-ftd.jpg
Mars uses plastic packaging across its wide product portfolio, including flexible packaging for Snickers chocolate bars.
We can’t solve the plastics packaging pollution issue by reducing or eliminating material only, but we can innovate and partner our way out of it, says a Mars executive.

Mars Inc. is one of many corporations with aggressive goals for making its packaging more sustainable, more circular.

As part of ongoing efforts to drive circularity, Mars recently announced its 2025 Sustainable Plastic Packaging Plans: (1) Reduce virgin plastic use by 25%; (2) Have 100% of its plastic packaging be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

To reach these goals, Mars is rethinking its approach to packaging by:

Reducing packaging it doesn’t need;
• Redesigning packaging for circularity (for about 12,000 stock-keeping units!);
• Investing to close the loop.

One way the company is investing in the future of circular packaging is by supporting the Global Plastics Treaty. In February 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) decided to pursue a global treaty to help solve the problem of plastics pollution. Over the next two years, world players will negotiate the contents of the treaty.

In this Earth Day 2022 Packaging Possibilities podcast, Anders Bering, Vice President, Global Public Affairs of Mars Inc., explains:

• Why Mars supports this treaty;
• How we think about the plastic pollution problem in different ways in different parts of the world;
• The promise of advanced/molecular/chemical recycling, especially for flexible packaging;
• Why we need to partner with governments and suppliers to drive regulation and infrastructure to support collection, sorting, and recycling;
• How the treaty will impact plastic packaging.

 

PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES - Season 2: Episode 9

If you have a topic you’d like to propose for a future PACKAGING POSSIBILITIES episode, please email Lisa Pierce at [email protected].

 

TRANSCRIPTION IS AUTO GENERATED

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Hello, this is Lisa Pierce, executive editor of Packaging Digest, with another episode of Packaging Possibilities, a podcast that reveals what’s new and what’s next for packaging executives and engineers, designers and developers.

In this episode, I’ll be talking with Anders Bering, Vice President, Global Public Affairs for Mars Inc., the food company.

Our topic today, Earth Day, is the Global Plastics Treaty, and Mars’s involvement. Anders, hi! Thanks for joining us today.

Anders Bering (guest)
Hi, Lisa. And thanks so much for having me on the show today.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
It’s our pleasure. Really appreciate you giving us your time. So, Anders, what is the Global Plastics Treaty and why is it needed?

Anders Bering (guest)
Yeah. Thanks, Lisa. And what an appropriate date to have that conversation.

So the Plastics Treaty is basically the United Nations now coming together, agreeing on the fact that plastic waste is a big issue and an issue that’s going to take a lot of stakeholders around the world to address. And we obviously as a company support that very much.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes. And there’s been a lot of activity around dealing with the plastics pollution issue. It’s not necessarily limited to packaging, but it does involve packaging quite a bit. But one of them is the Plastics Pact Network by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. So how is this treaty different from the Pact that already exists?

Anders Bering (guest)
Yeah. So, I think we have been signatories to the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and I think the work they’ve done have been in and shouldn’t be underestimated in any way, because I think they’ve served as probably one of the most important catalysts of making the world aware of the issues and the problems related to plastics ending up in the oceans or in nature or in places where it doesn’t belong.

And the Ellen MacArthur Foundation work has catalyzed companies like ours, involvement in the packaging space. It has helped us get our thoughts aligned with partners and peers around the world. But it’s been very focused on the corporate side of things. And it’s been extremely helpful for us. Now we consider the Global Plastics Treaty the next catalyst of plastic change around the world.

We see this as an opportunity to drive more momentum with additional stakeholders in addition to the ones who’ve been signatories to the EMF work.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK. As I mentioned earlier, plastics are used in a lot of products, as well as a lot of packaging. So does the Treaty … it sounds like this is a little bit broader. Does the Treaty talk more, or focus more, on plastic products — perhaps like a handle for toothbrush or a small household appliance — or is it really focusing on the plastics packaging because it’s so visible. Once products are done, the packaging is what’s leftover and that’s mostly what people talk about when they talk about plastic pollution. They’re talking about plastic packaging pollution. So how does the Treaty define plastics in this instance?

Anders Bering (guest)
Great questions. And I think questions that the number of governments have been asking themselves also for a long time. So, we’ll see what happens as the Treaty is negotiated and finalized amongst the Member States. But I think what the plastic treaty will do, at least from the indications we have so far, is that it will recognize as I think you’re alluding to, that plastic is a material that we should accept for what it is, which for a food producer like us is a fantastic material in that it can preserve and protect great taste and durability of our products. While plastic is a problematic source of pollution, if it is not discarded off in the right way, if it is not recycled and treated in the right way. So I guess our hope for the plastic treaty is that it will make that very clear that plastic can be and is a fantastic material with lots of good properties, including lightweight compared to a lot of its, the alternatives out there, but it can also be immensely problematic if it is not treated in the right way.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, especially in the ocean where we’re seeing a lot of the items break down into the micro pieces that are then consumed by animals and the whatnot, which is again, as you say, problematic.

Anders Bering (guest)
Indeed. And that’s very much how we at Mars have been thinking about this. I think for us, it’s essential that it, that any packaging, whether that’s plastic or anything else, it does not end up being waste and does not end up in nature, whether that’s in forests or in the oceans. We would like to get to a stage where our packaging is part of a circular economy where it’s either reused or recycled and comes back to us as new packaging material.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, excellent.

Earlier, when you identified this treaty, you said the UN Global Plastics Treaty, so I’m assuming then that the agreement is going to be with the United Nation countries, member countries, as you mentioned. So what I think about this is … what percentage, excuse me, what percentage of the plastics pollution problem that we’re seeing in the world today do those member countries represent? Because I seem to know that the vast majority of the pollution is coming from Asia and generally in that area, and that’s not UN.

Anders Bering (guest)
Yes. Great question.

So I think … we think about the plastic pollution problem in different ways in different parts of the world. And when you mention the biggest problem being in Asia, I think that would be referring to a lot of the plastic that ends up in the oceans or in nature. And I would agree with you that that you can isolate a big chunk of that problem there. Now the rest of the world has its own problems with plastics that’s not necessarily discarded off in the right way or recycled or reused as we would like to see it, as well.

So this is very much a world problem, which is why it’s relevant to have a world organization like the UN address this. So the Plastics Treaty is coming out of the United Nations Eenvironment program and what they’ve essentially agreed now is they’re going to spend the next two years detailing what that treaty looks like. This is not something you do every day on every topic. It’s a big signal to the world that this is a problem for the world and the solutions to the problem lies in that same organization as well. It needs its members, which is basically 193 countries around the world, which would address most of the countries we would think of when we think of also the plastic pollution in the ocean. So it does in fact include all the areas that we would find to be relevant and hence we think of it as that catalyst of the next phase in addressing plastic waste.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
A wonderful point. I love, Anders, that you mentioned how it is a world issue, a world problem that we have to solve and I know that a lot of the countries in the UN, in Europe … Europe was one of the earliest sections of the world to recognize the sustainability issues going all the way back to the Green Dot in Germany, which I don’t even know how … easily 30-40 years in the making, right?

Anders Bering (guest)
Yeah, correct. And I grew up just north of that border from Germany. So I remember the going Aponte and those Green Dots very well as a sort of, as a signal that hey, you need to be aware of this and you need to think about what you do with your packaging waste when you’re done. And I think what we’re seeing now is there’s a recognition that it is not a problem that’s isolated so that we can, we can leave that responsibility to those Asian countries where we feel they might be far away and that’s where the plastics problem is. No. This is a problem that we all have a responsibility to address, everywhere in the world.

Now we may be in different stages because, in Germany, the conversation we’re having is not necessarily about whether it ends up in the ocean today, but it’s a question about whether the plastic packaging waste is incinerated when you’re done with it. And we as a producer that’s committed to essentially, eventually getting to a stage where all of our plastic packaging is circular. Don’t like it being burnt when it’s, you know when it’s reached its end of use. We would like that packaging to be sorted. In Germany, we would like that packaging to be recycled and treated so that we could turn it into a sustainable packaging for us as well for the future. And in the same spirit, we would love for our packaging in Asia to be not ending up in rivers or oceans or in nature today. Eventually, we would love that packaging to be circular as well. Now the solutions may differ, but the acknowledgement of that problem needs to be universal.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Mm-hmm. Yes. And I think it is and there are a lot of people working on solving this problem right now. But we have heard reports that some manufacturers are actually pushing against a plastics treaty. Why is that? Is this counterintuitive then for Mars to support something like this?

Anders Bering (guest)
Yeah, I think that’s, it’s a great question. And I think for a lot of people the, I think the expectation would be that businesses as a gut reaction against regulation and I think that’s a mistake. It’s either a mistake in my understanding of what business wants or it’s a mistake for businesses to think that that’s what they want. And so I think in that vein, Mars believes in the world in the future where the planet is healthy and where our packaging is circular.

Image courtesy of CanvaMars-Global-Plastics-Treaty-Anders-Bering-quote-web.jpg

So when we look at the Plastics Treaty, we think it helps us on that journey towards that better future that we all want. So, in fact for us it was a pretty easy sell, say this actually aligns very well with what the planet needs and what we want as a business. Now, others may have analyzed this differently, which I you know I will let them answer to that. But it certainly it fits extremely well with the values of our company and the sustainable packaging agenda of Mars.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
One of the things that you said earlier that I absolutely loved was that plastics sometimes is the best packaging material for a product or a situation, and sometimes it’s the best material for economic reasons as well, which of course you know we’re all in a business. We can’t discount the economic area of that, but that’s, you know, economic is just one area. You've got the product protection, you've got shelf life all of that. So how are all those factors going to be taken into account in the Treaty or I guess you know maybe the bigger question here is, how is the Treaty going to impact plastic packaging? And you know, maybe manufacturers’ choices in the packaging materials that they decide to use.

Anders Bering (guest)
Well, I think all of those are great questions that I think remains to be seen. This is what the next two years is going to show as the negotiations proceed in the UN and anybody will understand that getting alignment among 193 countries in the UN is not a simple task.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Nope. I wouldn’t think so.

Anders Bering (guest)
So we appreciate that and I don’t necessarily envy the negotiators here but it’s an important work nonetheless. So I think the way we think about this is, again, it’s going to catalyze the work to make packaging and plastics in particular more circular in the future. And what it’s going to do, practically speaking, for a company like ours is it’s going to drum up the issue of plastic packaging waste, which is helpful to us because we need our suppliers of packaging material, we need governments around the world, we need the big recycling infrastructure to all align on how we address this issue. Now I can think of nothing else than a signal from the UN being a better catalyst for bringing all of these players together. We shouldn’t expect it to solve all of our problems. It’s not going to give us answers to all of our big difficult questions here. But what it is going to do is it’s going to bring us together around a common issue. And that’s where the solutions will arise.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, it sounds like the Treaty is … well, I'm not sure is the goal of the Treaty and this is very slight difference in language. Is the goal of the Treaty to reduce the use of plastics or to reduce the pollution of plastics? Because that’s a slightly different reason.

Anders Bering (guest)
It is and I think that depends on the plastic and on the circumstance. So I think the way that we think about the Treaty and what it’s going to do is it is not going to send the signal that all plastic is bad because it would have been a different treaty. We could have worked towards the total ban instead, which frankly wouldn’t have helped anybody.

And what I think is important with the Treaty is that we get to a stage where it recognizes that some plastics that we have used in the past are bad because we don’t have a good way to discard of them afterwards. We don’t have a way to recycle them and when they end up in nature, they’re deeply problematic. Those plastics we should frankly get rid of. Now, Mars has already, along with other signatories of the Ellen MacArthur work, work towards eliminating plastics like that. So PVC for instance for us was an early target and we’ve essentially eliminated that. Now from our portfolio, we don’t want it in there and there’s other ways also where plastic becomes problematic when you mix materials because it’s too hard to recycle it in its sort of after-use phase. S,o the question is, the answer is a bit more nuanced than let’s ban plastic or let’s ban this packaging format.

We should think about it as we should use plastics and we should use the good forms of plastics, and that means plastics where we have technologies that can either compost it or recycle it or reuse it.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
OK, Anders. One point that I want to make here though, is that I think most circular economy plans that they, they really are looking at the full life cycle, not just the end of life. Is this treaty going to do the same?

Anders Bering (guest)
We certainly hope so because I think it is important to think about this in a circular way. We want to think about packaging material as something that in the best cases can be used over and over again, or that can easily compost into nature, or that we can treat and recycle so that the material can be used for plastic packaging, ideally for us, for food packaging. Again, when you’re done with it.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, there is a lot of description of what it means to have a circular system, whether it’s the material going back into the same material or being reused in some other way. And I think I know that … you say that it’s the next two years that a lot of this is going to be decided, but I would certainly hope that the Treaty does take advantage of the many, many options that we have for plastic package and making it a little bit more circular and that’s you know, also perhaps on the recycling side, looking at chemical or molecular, advanced recycling, whatever it is that you call it. Do you think that the people who are going to be working on this treaty are going to be up on all these options that we have, specifically this newer technology?

Anders Bering (guest)
Well, that’s our hope and we’re certainly doing our part to make sure that they do. And I have big faith in them. Again, it’s going to be a difficult task for them to get alignment amongst the more than 190 nations, but I mean I sympathize a lot with that question. In my past I worked in the bottling industry and as you know a lot of investments for decades have gone into recycling PET, which means for a lot of our bottles today. Plastic bottles. We have good solutions for recycling them, but that’s because we decided it was important and we worked together to set up the infrastructure behind it. I think the time has come to do the same for other plastic packaging formats in the same spirit as we did it for PET bottles in the past, and the journey isn't over. Of course with PET bottles, but you find some of the early movers on this. My own country is at plus 93% recycling rate for their PET bottles. It’s massive, but it means it can be done. Now very little investment has gone into recycling flexible packaging, which a lot of our portfolio consists of. But we know the solution is out there with advanced recycling. We know it’s possible, but just like for the PET bottles, we need good sorting to happen. We need the consumer to discard of it in the right way. We need us as producers to design the products in the right way, so we don’t mix material. So we eliminate the materials that shouldn’t be there to begin with and then we need basically an infrastructure that consists of regulation from governments around the world. The very same people who are negotiating the Treaty right now to recognize that this is a recycling option that should be out there. We need incentives for investments to come into this industry and we need some of the big recycling industry players to invest and to get on this technology and that’s exactly what we what we were starting to see happen and what we hope to see happen now at speed as the plastic treaty progresses.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Anders, I want to follow up on two things that you’ve said there. One is a comment on PET. I’m really glad that you brought that up because it allows me to make the point that one of the reasons why PET is doing so well from a recycling point of view is because they recyclate, the rPET is in high demand for other packages that want to include recycled content into them.

So that is definitely making a business case for PET and that is an incredible success story. Whether that could be replicated with other plastic materials ... I know there’s a lot of people that are hoping that it can specifically in packaging for polyethylene, polypropylene. So yes, recycled content is helping to do have the pull for being able to recycle the material.

Image courtesy of Mar PetcareMars-Sheba-pet-food-pkg-web.jpg

Pouches of Sheba pet food that contain recycled plastic from advanced recycling techniques (also called chemical recycling) will enter the European market in 2022. The development, a first in the wet pet food market, comes from a partnership between Mars Petcare and packaging suppliers SABIC and Huhtamaki.

 

Anders Bering (guest)
Exactly. And I think it’s exactly that market mechanism that we’ve seen at work that we are seeing now for other packaging formats and that starts with us as producers sending very clear demand signals that we want recycled material because that makes it interesting for people to invest in that industry. But the wheel only turns if you have the infrastructure in place in the countries, which is why we’re spending so much time as producers. And I know a lot of the recyclers are on the same journey, talking to governments and explaining to them that we want that circular option, not just in PET, we want it for other plastic packaging formats out there. Then we as producers and Mars has committed to this already years ago will make sure that, on the design side, we will make sure that our packaging formats fit that infrastructure, but we will need infrastructure change all over the world basically on this.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes. And one of the areas that you already talked about was flexible packaging and it’s pretty exciting how much development is going on right now with end-of-life for flexible packaging from a recycling point of view, as well as, you know, just a reuse point of view.

So earlier I said there were two things that I wanted to follow up on of what you had talked about earlier. One of the words that you use that kind of made my ears stick up was incentives. So let’s talk a little bit about that. And I know this is all still just in the works, but what do you think is going to be the incentive for organizations and the UN member countries to adhere to this Treaty? Do you, do you see it as evolving where it’s going to be a carrot and a stick, you know, incentives. And then also some punitive … umm, maybe incentive on the negative side of things?

Anders Bering (guest)
Yeah, I think this problem is so big and complex that it will require us using pretty much all the tools we have in our toolkit. And again, it might sound counter intuitive that we as a business would welcome this and we’re not welcoming this naively with our eyes closed. We’re very much going into this with open eyes. And I think we have, we’ve supported at Mars the setting up of funding mechanisms or financial mechanisms through extended producer responsibility schemes around the world that recognize that there is a bill to be paid on this, but at the same time, these systems should incentivize producers like us deciding the right packaging formats. Ideally also government setting up the right infrastructure because we have a shared interest in these systems actually working. So I think it will be a mix. I think as a business Mars has decided that we don’t need an incentive to go into the space we’ve already set ambitious targets. So what we need right now is for others to follow along and agree that this is a challenge and agree that we work together on it, which is why the packaging treaty again is helpful in in sort of pushing that along.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, uh, sometimes people do need a little bit of a kick in the butt to get moving.

Anders Bering (guest)
Bit of a nudge, yes.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yep. Nudge. OK, that’s a much better phrase than a kick in the butt. OK, so, Anders, I know you’ve mentioned two years. You know, this is going to be negotiated over the next two years. Do you have any more insight into the schedule of this or the timeline for when you think it might be written, when it might be accepted, and maybe even looking a little bit far out, the compliance dates?

Anders Bering (guest)
No, I think it’s such a complex process that the negotiators are embarking on now. And I think in a lot of ways the best thing we can do is give them, give them a bit of space to get this setup right and make sure they have the right information needed for this. And then I think in the meantime as a producer, the world is not going to stand still for us for two years by any means. We’ve set ourselves ambitious targets and we’re right in the middle of delivering them. So we’re going to muscle on and continue with what we can control, which again for us a large part of that is the design piece.

We are redesigning 12,000 different packaging units as Mars alone. This is a massive task. Now if the listeners could see your facial expression, they would, I think understand the magnitude of that challenge. It’s absolutely massive. And so this is everything from us and we were happy to announce, as some have just celebrated Easter, that 97% of our Easter egg packaging portfolio now in the UK is completely without plastics. So just imagine going a few years back, you unpack your Easter eggs and there’s several layers of plastic packaging in there, some of which is essential, some of which you could probably live without. But now you can go around to a store in London and buy our Easter eggs completely without plastic packaging around it. These are massive, massive steps for us because there was a reason we’ve relied on several layers of plastic packaging around our eggs. In the past it was because it protected them and it gave consumers that delightful experience they get when they when they see in an Easter egg, we all want that. We don’t want to compromise any of these things. So for us as producers to find different material to find different solution, that innovation process is absolutely massive. That’s not going to stand still for the next two years. We’re going to continue to do that. We’re going to continue to explore options for our pet food.

The business to have refill options in stores or to have packaging formats with less plastic or without plastic entirely or with different forms of plastic. So that’s going to continue. And I have no doubt that the recycling industry is going to continue also planning towards that new future where the treaty is in place, the government will ratify it and we will actually live towards solving these well problems.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, very interesting, Anders, all that you are already doing, all that Mars is already doing and will continue to do.

In some conversations that I’ve had with other food companies, they … we’ve also and other sustainable packaging experts ... One of the trends that we’re seeing also is that a lot of companies are rethinking the barrier needs of their packaging. And fitting that more to a realistic shelf life of the product turns, and that is helping a lot of these companies reduce the size of the packaging, not the size. What? What am I talking about? The thickness.

Anders Bering (guest)
Yes.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Just reducing overall packaging weight. That’s the word I was looking for. And you know, making some strides from a sustainability area that way by doing that.

Anders Bering (guest)
Yeah. And I think you know, a lot of producers like us have been on that journey for a long time, whether that’s reducing headspace that’s not needed and the sort of the top of the packaging, let’s get rid of it or let’s make the plastic even thinner and let’s see how thin we can make it without it breaking. So I think a company like ours will have harvested a lot of those low-hanging fruits and have reduced our use of packaging per volume tremendously.

That because of that, over the years, I think where we are getting to now is that that redo, we can’t reduce our way out of this problem.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
No.

Anders Bering (guest)
And so reduce is going to continue to be one lever for us to pull. There are you know areas where we can remove a bit more headspace or where we can reduce the packaging a little bit or where we can maybe mix the inner and the outer layer of our packs and reduce plastic as such in there. But again, we can’t reduce our way entirely out of the problem. We will need to innovate out of the problem as well, and that innovation leads us into either totally new packaging materials or packaging materials. We’ve known for years, but where we indeed had those barrier problems or the shelf life problems or it could be the recycled content, to your point that we that we find solutions where the plastic packaging continues to cycle in a loop of a positive circle where it doesn’t end up as waste, which again is the main problem that we’re trying to solve here.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Anders, thank you so much for all your time and explaining this and telling us Mars’s position on all of this. I love that we’re ending on a very positive note of you talking about innovation, and I just am anxious to see what solutions Mars comes up with that then we can share with the packaging digest audience.

So, Andrew, thank you so much.

Anders Bering (guest)
Well, thanks so much for having me. And indeed do look out for these packaging innovations. There’s some exciting stuff in, in store for you, whether you’re a chocolate lover or a or a pet friend. There’s a ton of innovations coming out there. So we’re certainly excited about it and excited also to be able to have this conversation, Lisa, ’cause it is a big and important issue for us.

Lisa McTigue Pierce
Yes, it is. And again, just very anxious to see what you guys come up with. Thank you, Anders. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today.

Anders Bering (guest)
Thank you.

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