Plastic under pressure. Fibre profits. It’s down to the wire

© Unsplash | OCG Saving The Ocean

In the second article of our series on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), we look at efforts and concrete examples for the “elimination of problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging”. Driven by regulators, consumer demands and current studies, the top issue of plastic elimination is becoming existential especially for those packaging companies that do not have convincing alternatives in their portfolio. Those who have fibre-based solutions on offer can profit most of all.


As a global pioneer in the circular economy, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is pushing for the elimination of so-called “critical plastics” such as carbon black and PVC. However, EMF’s concerns and activities go far beyond this. The Foundation is strongly committed to the general reduction or even elimination of plastics where they are not absolutely necessary. As EMF members, major players such as Nestlé, Unilever or the fat spread producer Upfield are pursuing these goals very consistently and with an ambitious timetable (until 2025) as part of their “Plastic Free Strategy”.

The global trend towards reducing or avoiding non-essential plastics poses major challenges for the packaging industry in the context of greatly changed requirements by brand owners and private labels.


Breaking the Plastic Wave: Situation and Potential

The study “Breaking the Plastic Wave”, which was prepared by SYSTEMIQ and The Pew Charitable Trusts, among others, in cooperation with EMF, assumes that within the framework of the measures already introduced by regulators and industry, only 7 per cent of the unwanted input of plastic into the world’s oceans will be eliminated by 2040. The study criticises the fact that most of the new regulations refer to specific products instead of pushing for a fundamental system change.

According to the study, however, up to one third of the plastic used in plastic packaging could be saved on a global level through the elimination and reuse of plastic as well as through new supply models. The elimination factor in particular is attributed a significant share of these savings.

Another sixth of the plastic used can be saved by replacing plastics with paper-based and compostable materials, according to the study.



Strategies for packaging design

Brand owners and private labels have been massively focusing on eliminating plastic in their packaging for some time. Two main design strategies are being pursued:


Elimination of problematic plastics.

Problematic plastics include carbon black, PVC and expandable polystyrene. EMF signatories have already eliminated up to 94 per cent of individual problematic plastics. The number of companies that no longer use problematic plastics has increased by 25 per cent between 2018 and 2020. The move away from these plastics represents a fundamental and strong movement in the market.


Overall reduction of virgin plastics in packaging.

Although there are no official EMF targets for overall plastic packaging reduction, many major brand owners are committing to Virgin Plastics reduction. Unilever, for example, has set its reduction targets at 50 per cent by 2025.

The savings are to be achieved, for example, through

  • Reduced material use through weight reduction, thickness reduction or volume optimisation of product and packaging.
  • The switch to fibre-based packaging. This strategy has led to a renaissance of paper, which is now also increasingly reaching the food industry.


Fibre instead of plastic for food packaging

  • Example cups: cardboard-plastic combinations, such as for yoghurt or spreadable fat cups, as well as coated cardboard cups, such as for ice cream, are showing strong growth.
  • Example flexible packaging: Here, conversions to fibre-based films are taking place in both primary packaging (Nestlé, among others) and multipacks (Mars, among others).
  • Example thermoformed trays: Hybrids are increasingly being used here. Alternatively, trays are being completely converted from plastic to cardboard, for example for biscuits.



Those who want to sit out will remain seated

The elimination of plastic in packaging is now firmly anchored in the global agenda. There will be no “going back”. The drivers of this development are, on the one hand, the increasingly stringent regulators who act at national and European level and exert pressure, for example, through plastic taxes and measures against “overpackaging”. At the same time, consumers are increasingly moving away from plastic. Especially younger target groups with a high environmental awareness often prefer fibre-based packaging, which is perceived as more sustainable.


Packaging companies that continue to rely exclusively on virgin plastic run the risk of losing relevant parts of their business. Waiting and sitting it out is not a solution. Developing alternative solutions is the order of the day.

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