Don’t waste this opportunity

Each morning this summer brings us another dystopian image of a paradise beach strewn with plastic waste. The evening news serves up another story of sea birds with bellies full of plastic.

I make flexible plastic packaging for consumer goods for a living and I value the environment as much as anyone, but I for one am glad this moment is here. Why do I say that?

Simple. Seeing is believing. Believing is caring. And now, finally, everyone sees the problem. Or, actually, they think they see the problem. Sometimes the real problem is the one you don’t see; the thing that’s not there, such as effective waste collection and recycling.

The fact is proper packaging that’s fit for its purpose, and designed for reuse and recycling, is among our most important tools to minimise environmental footprint and mitigate climate change. And such packaging solutions are here and ready for
the market.

For years Mondi has been making sustainable paper and flexible plastic packaging solutions for forward-thinking, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands, and in collaboration with sustainable materials suppliers and recyclers.

Our paper and flexible plastic packaging solutions regularly win prizes and recognition at trade fairs, but commercial demand for some of our most innovative sustainable packaging was limited before this year. The public’s focus on the impact of plastic waste in the oceans is changing that.

The debate around plastic waste is driving the first-ever European strategy for plastics in a circular economy. A global plastics protocol to support the creation of effective recycling markets may soon follow. Now two thirds of the questions we get from FMCG companies – our customers – are about sustainable packaging; they want to know about production capacity and time to market. These are important developments.

Still there seems to be a general view that sustainability will cost consumers or companies more. I don’t buy that. Sure, there are extra costs in the beginning, when you’re testing renewables to replace fossil fuels, adapting production, and developing collection and recycling systems where there were none. But the more we learn and scale up, and the more demand there is from consumers and companies, the more prices will fall. Over time, we all benefit from economies of scale.

You cannot solve a problem if you don’t see it for what it is. All packaging, indeed manufacturing of any kind, has environmental costs. But, and it is a very big but, having no packaging has environmental and human costs too.

According to the United Nations, world population is set to reach 8.6 billion by 2030. Mega-cities are growing. To feed everyone we need reliable supplies of food.

Food waste makes up about 8 per cent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates. Food packaging supports safe transportation and extends the shelf life of many foods, protecting ten times the resources it uses. The packaging must be fit for its purpose – neither more nor less – and it must be reused and recycled. But 95 per cent of the material value of plastic packaging today is lost after a single use, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Single-use plastic shopping bags made from fossil fuels are used for an average of 12 minutes and take 500 to 1,000 years to decompose, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. That’s just a waste. So banning single-use plastic bags is a no-brainer. And there is an obvious alternative – paper. For example, a shopping bag made from Mondi’s speciality kraft paper carries up to 25 kilos (food retail bags must carry at least 12 kilos), is made of credibly certified fibre and is guaranteed safe for contact with food.

But there are some jobs for which flexible plastic is better suited: a properly stored cucumber wrapped in flexible plastic lasts around fourteen days after purchase compared to three days for one that isn’t wrapped, a Harris poll on consumer food waste revealed. Not such a no-brainer.

We need to minimise material and energy use, and close the gaps in the circular economy

What’s clear is that we need to minimise material and energy use, and close the gaps in the circular economy. We cannot continue to waste precious resources such as plastic and wood fibre. It’s not good for the environment or business.

At Mondi we focus on reducing material and energy consumption. In ten years we’ve reduced the weight of corrugated boxes by 9 per cent and paper bags by 13 per cent, compared with an industry average of 4 per cent, while increasing strength and functionality. Flexible plastic, which is the kind we make, uses at least 70 per cent less material than rigid plastic.

We collect and reuse paper and plastic trimmed from our production. Last year we recycled or reused 76 per cent of our own waste and burnt another 5 per cent to produce energy. We’ve reduced waste to landfill by 43 per cent in ten years. At our paper mill in Swiecie, Poland, we reduced waste to landfill to 1 per cent. We’re proud of these achievements and we’re working towards our goal of zero waste to landfill. It’s in everyone’s interest, including ours.

The circular economy is all about zero waste. The challenge with circular, though, is that everyone needs to do their bit. Regulators and governments need to set ambitious targets and support recycling. Consumers need to demand sustainable packaging. Companies need to manufacture recyclable packaging sustainably, using renewables and recycled materials. Consumers need to recycle.

The good news is that companies such as Mondi are already on this journey in partnership with customers, suppliers and recyclers. Our partnerships with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and CEFLEX, a collaborative initiative of European companies representing the entire value chain of flexible packaging, are an important key to turning circular thinking into action.

The public’s attention is a gift. It doesn’t always come on time, but in this case I think it has – so long as we all take this opportunity and play our part. Let’s not allow this moment to go to waste.


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