Virgin plastic use in packaging appears to have peaked among signatories to the ‘Global Commitment’ from circular economy pressure group the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – and the decline in its use is set to accelerate by 2025.

However, the charity warns that this is mostly being driven by the use of recycled content in packaging, rather than by reducing the need for single-use plastic in the first place – and it notes growing calls for a binding global agreement on plastic pollution, rather than relying on voluntary industry initiatives and government action.

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The foundation’s third annual progress report updates the actions taken by more than 500 organisations that have signed up to the ‘Global Commitment’, drawn up by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in association with the UN Environment Programme. The brands and retailers involved, including major packaging producers such as Amcor and Berry Global, as well as leading consumer businesses such as Unilever, The Coca-Cola Co, Nestlé and retailer Walmart, are responsible for 20% of all plastic packaging produced worldwide, and have signed up to ambitious 2025 targets.

According to the report, these companies collectively reduced their virgin plastic consumption by 1.2% last year, building on the 0.6% reduction recorded in 2019 – following decades of exponential growth that saw the global plastics market mushroom from 2m tonnes in 1950 to more than 300m tonnes in 2015. Furthermore, says the foundation, this trend of declining use is set to accelerate in the coming years, since a commitment to an absolute reduction in virgin or total plastic use by 2025 is now a mandatory requirement for businesses wanting to sign up to the Global Commitment.

“These targets are expected to lead to a total reduction in virgin plastic used by brand and retail signatories of around 19% between 2018 and 2025,” the report says. “This sustained and significant fall would mark, for the first time, a decoupling of business growth from the consumption of virgin plastic among leading brand and retail companies.”

When combined with the recycled content targets of plastic and packaging manufacturer signatories, it adds, this would reduce virgin plastic production by 8m tonnes a year – equivalent to 40m barrels of oil. However, there is a substantial problem with the way that virgin plastic use is being reduced, in that it is largely being driven by the growing use of recycled content in packaging – mainly rigid PET packaging.

The report notes that retail and brand signatories “substantially” increased post-consumer recycled content in their plastic packaging between 2018 and 2020 – a 60% rise, from 5.2% to 8.2% – meaning that if current trends continue and targets are met, about 80% of the planned virgin plastic reduction for 2025 will be accounted for by increasing recycled content.

“Most current efforts to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging involve substitution to other plastics or paper, not solutions that reduce the need for single-use packaging in the first place,” the report says, highlighting the fact that less than 2% of the packaging from Global Commitment signatories is reusable – with more than half of signatories admitting that none of their plastic packaging can be used again.

“While these changes take time,” the report says, “more concerning is that levels of ambition to explore and scale reuse appear very low. Just 11% of signatories launched more than three pilots in the last year, while 56% launched none at all.”

It continues: “We won’t recycle or dispose our way out of plastic pollution. Demand for plastic packaging is predicted to double over the coming two decades … To achieve a circular economy for plastic, substantially more effort must go into preventing waste from being created in the first place – using elimination and reuse solutions to curb growth in the total amount of packaging that needs to be circulated.”

The slow and inconsistent rate of progress – bearing in mind that 80% of the plastic packaging market is not covered by the Global Commitment – means that voluntary industry initiatives and isolated governmental interventions are unlikely to drive meaningful change.Instead, there is growing support among businesses and nations for a global agreement on plastic pollution – and the Foundation believes that 2022 offers a “unique opportunity” to build on the current momentum and to take action on a global scale.

With about 80 leading companies from across the plastics value chain backing calls from the Foundation, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for a binding UN treaty on plastics, the report points to the next session of the UN Environment Assembly in February 2022. Noting that about 100 countries have also explicitly expressed support for starting negotiations on a global agreement on plastics in 2022, it says: “This is a unique opportunity to drive ambitious global action on plastics pollution that the international community must seize.”

At the same time, industry support for extended producer responsibility (EPR) policy is now substantial. The report says that 150-plus organisations have now recognised that EPR policy is “the only proven way” to ensure sufficient funds for the collection, sorting and recycling of packaging. Without this, the Foundation argues, recycling is “unlikely to ever scale”.

The report concludes: “Governments can build on this strong and constructive signal from industry to accelerate the implementation of EPR policy for packaging. Eight out of nine national governments reporting to the Global Commitment have already indicated that they have set or are planning to implement EPR policies by 2025.”