A key theme in this year’s conversations on sustainable packaging has been ocean plastics and its impact on our planet. We are now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is destined for single use.
Since the 1950s, the rate of plastic production has grown faster than that of any other material. Plastic packaging, the main cause for the increase, accounted for 52% of discarded plastics in 2015. If the current trend continues, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. As a response to public outcry, companies have committed to increase recycling rates, reduce plastic use and invest in recycling technology. Governments are taking action too: More than 50 countries have pledged to combat marine litter under the UN’s Clean Seas campaign.
With ocean preservation as a main theme at the Chicago-hosted American Packaging Summit 2019, industry leaders had the opportunity to exchange ideas around what some of the world’s largest companies can do to help stop plastic from entering our marine environment.
As outlined in a presentation by Oliver Campbell, Director of Worldwide Procurement and Packaging Engineering at Dell, ocean plastic is a looming environmental and human crisis. Every year, eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean. Without action, this rate will grow to over 17 million tons by 2025.
To stem the tide on ocean plastic, Dell told industry leaders at the American Packaging Summit that its strategy is to leverage its strengths in innovation and supply chain by creating an open, scalable, and commercially viable solution.
Dell has for years incorporated bamboo, wheat straw, and mushrooms into its packaging and, since 2015, has been engaged in ocean plastics. In April 2017, the technology giant launched the first ocean-bound plastic packaging on the XPS 13 2-in-1, its premier consumer laptop, and in the same year, committed to a goal of 100 percent sustainable packaging by 2020.
Other companies have followed suit. In 2018, 11 value-driven brands including The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Mars, and Évian committed to using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. Nestlé Waters will reimagine the water bottle by designing for source reduction, recycling, and minimal environmental impact. Its current goal is to use 100% PET or renewable materials in their bottles by 2030.
In the last few years alone we have seen a crucial amount of long-term commitments to sustainability centering on significant action. But the plastics problem is not an issue that one company can tackle single-handedly; companies must collaborate to end ocean plastics.
A number of organizations, government agencies and nonprofits have recently advocated for a more circular economy in which we keep plastic in use for as long as possible, and out of the natural environment.
As Campbell laid out in his presentation at the American Packaging Summit, “Many organizations working together with a systems perspective are needed.” Dell recognized this and, as part of a United Nations commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 14, partnered with non-profit Lonely Whale to launch NextWave Plastics in 2017.
Bringing together a cross-industry consortium of companies to work together in an open-sourced and transparent fashion, NextWave is a collaborative effort to minimize the amount of plastic entering our oceans by capturing it and turning it into raw material for member companies. The resulting product could become a board game for Bureo, which sells a version of Jenga made from fishing nets, or ink cartridges for HP.
The collective currently sources ocean-bound plastic from Indonesia, the Philippines, Cameroon, Haiti, Denmark, and Chile, and is aiming to add Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and India to its sourcing locations. Its goal is to divert at least 25,000 metric tons of plastics from the oceans by 2025.
Another effort is the UK Plastic Pact, which aims to hit four targets by 2025:
100% of plastics packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.
70% of plastics packaging effectively recycled or composted.
30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.
Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery model.
The program is the first of its kind to tackle the issue of plastic waste through collaboration across the entire supply chain, and it, along with Dell’s NextWave Plastics, reinforce that the plastics issue is not something that one company can tackle alone. Small businesses and key industry players alike must form a global movement to achieve a more sustainable future.
The hunger for change from the public, the engagement from governments and the enthusiasm seen in the packaging industry indicate that serious change is possible -- and on the horizon -- if we continue to work together.