As I sat down to write this year’s review, I found it hard to decide where to start. Should I stick to sustainability or start with a comment on the fact that this year our progress has been under a cloud created by a president that denies humans are the cause of climate change and promotes coal over alternative energy? The good news is that the private sector and select cities and states are stepping in where our federal government has stepped back. This is happening in support of both environmental and social sustainability challenges.
With regard to sustainable packaging, key global trends continued to shape our space:
• Ocean pollution remains a key concern and could eventually threaten society’s willingness to use plastic materials. Study after study identifies plastic in sea life—from microplastics in mussels along the coast of Norway to plastic in the stomachs of salmon in the Puget Sound. Algae grows on the surface of plastic confusing fish and other creatures into thinking it is food. Universities are working together to create measurement protocols and standards to assess the issue and $150 million has been pledged to help create infrastructure in Asia to keep trash out of the oceans.
• China has embarked on a beautification program that includes tackling a variety of environmental issues. One area covered in the new program is an initiative to develop an internal recycling industry and to stop taking the world’s trash for processing. The U.S. and Europe have been sending #3 through #7 plastics to China for many years. Our discarded materials have been part of the land-based plastics entering the ocean in Asia. This new program in China has disrupted end markets for plastics and mixed paper but will result in improved domestic processing capacity and globally a better end result. It is time that we learned how to manage our own packaging. There is talk of significant investment in cleaning and processing technologies in the U.S. to produce clean pellets for export.
• Voluntary corporate accountability is on the rise. 2017 saw significant new commitments across the board for counting and reducing carbon and increasing recyclability of packaging materials from a diverse group of brand owners. Exceptional programs include Mars pledged of $1 billion to fight climate change and Walmart launched Project Gigaton to remove a gigaton of carbon from its supply chain. I hope that in 2018 companies will develop commitments to use recycled material and help create end markets for all the material that is now recyclable. Target’s new goals include creating more demand for recycled packaging by creating three new end markets for recycled materials by 2020.
• California took a step toward creating a mandatory comprehensive policy to manage all packaging in the state. It will include enforceable metrics and goals, and the authority to identify priority packaging and implement a suite of management tools. Plastic films, expanded polystyrene (EPS) and pouches are the first priority materials identified. Policy tools will establish stable funding, minimize generation of materials going to landfill, ensure clean streams and establish consequences. Each material type may be managed differently based on the best selection of policy tools for each material type. Seattle hosted a one-day symposium to explore innovative ideas for materials management beyond the traditional weight-based recycling rate. I believe measurement will be an important topic in 2018 and will include an exploration of the idea that changing how we measure may change and improve our outcomes.
• At the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) material sourcing took a step forward with the Forest in Focus (FiF) project. FIF is a new platform that uses publically available, scientifically credible data to assess woodbasket sustainability on a landscape level. This new tool will provide visualization in all major sourcing regions in the United States and evaluate risk. The tool is being developed by SPC in partnership with American Forest Foundation (AFF) with more to come in 2018.
• Material health saw a flurry of headlines around perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) used in foodservice packaging for water and grease resistance. There is a growing environmental concern about both short and long chain versions of these chemicals. SPC noticed an increasing interest in restricted substances lists and a desire to learn more about the chemicals used in packaging materials.
• More than 150 organizations backed the call by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to ban oxo-degradable plastic packaging. SPC supports this and has had a position against these and other similar additives since 2015. A new twist on this type of additive has occurred, promoting the use of additives to make materials more “landfill friendly.” The idea is the additives would enhance degradation in a landfill producing methane that could be captured. The risk to our environment, recycling stream and the jobs provided by recycling is enormous. This idea cannot be allowed to spread.
• The How2Recycle label saw rapid growth in 2017. Members now represent more than 500 major brands and most major retailers. The label will be more important than ever in reducing contamination in the recycling stream—and keeping consumers engaged in recycling. The new How2Recycle Member Platform allows brands and retailers to track, measure and improve the recyclability of their packaging portfolio by giving custom feedback and dynamic analytics on packaging data. ASTRX, a partnership between The Recycling Partnership and SPC, released a document on navigating the recycling stream that helps breakdown where the challenges and opportunities are for moving forward so we can make the future of recycling in America more resilient.
As we look ahead to 2018, we continue to hold true to the belief in the power of industry and innovation to make packaging more sustainable, as well as to advance the field of environmental sustainability to cater to the demands of consumers and to achieve ambitious corporate goals.
Nina Goodrich, director, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and executive director, GreenBlue, came to GreenBlue with an industry background in R&D, innovation and sustainability strategy. She believes that innovation and sustainability are linked as key drivers for our future.