Nestlé has ramped up its investment in sustainable packaging by a whopping figure. Earlier this month, it announced a CHF 2bn (£1.58bn) investment “to lead the shift from virgin plastics to food-safe recycled plastic and accelerate the development of innovative sustainable packaging solutions”.
So, what are the plans? And what difference will they make?
The majority of the outlay will be on sourcing up to two million tonnes of food-grade recycled plastic, working with third parties “to advance the circular economy and endeavour to clean up plastic waste from oceans, lakes and rivers”.
More than CHF 1.5bn (£1.19bn) will be allocated to “pay a premium” for such materials between now and 2025. This will create a marketplace for food-grade recycled plastics, Nestlé claims. It also intends to reduce its own use of virgin plastics by one third by 2025.
This builds on Nestlé’s 2018 commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025 (work that this week saw the UK rollout of Nesquik All Natural in recyclable paper).
“Announcements like this help give confidence to the recycling industry,” says Helen Bird, strategic engagement manager at WRAP. “A key challenge to achieving higher levels of recycled content in plastic packaging is ensuring there is enough high quality material available.”
Sander Defruyt, new plastics economy lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, believes Nestlé’s investment marks a “critical step towards… decoupling plastic use from finite resources”.
All food suppliers “face a challenge when it comes to replacing virgin plastic packaging with recycled alternatives, as not all recycled plastics are safe to use alongside food” he says. “Nestlé’s investment in food-grade recycled plastics could help to drive innovation in this area and develop a market that - with the exception of rPET - is currently very small.”
The need for such innovation was highlighted by circular economy specialist Axion’s 2018 warning that “technology and infrastructure is not currently available to produce food-grade recycled polypropylene food packaging from post-consumer household packaging”.
Nestlé’s efforts to create a greater market for food-grade recycled plastics will be welcomed by other suppliers, suggests the British Plastics Federation. “To help build a truly circular economy, businesses are increasingly looking at ways to incorporate recycled content into their packaging,” says a spokesman. “The inclusion of recycled materials in plastic packaging often provides the benefit of resource efficiency and, therefore, carbon savings.”
But sceptics include Break Free From Plastic, which last October named the company Nestlé as one of the world’s three worst plastic polluters (alongside Coca-Cola and PepsiCo). The sustainability movement’s European coordinator Delphine Lévi Alvarès says Nestlé has made “an interesting play” but is not going far enough.
It must go further by investing in “ending the reliance on single-use packaging and focusing on toxic-free reusable products and systems”. It also needs to phase out “hazardous chemicals, including those identified as endocrine disruptors, from their products at the design stage” she adds. “We won’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution, so we call on Nestlé to stay away from false solutions, and truly commit to prevention and reuse.”
Greenpeace also says Nestlé’s priorities are wrong. It should focus on innovation, not recycling, says senior Greenpeace campaigner Matthias Wüthrich. “Reducing single-use plastic should not mean that Nestlé turns to false solutions such as recycled content and material substitution. It is crucial that the company embraces innovation and invests its CHF 2bn towards new business models instead of just buying recycled plastics. Nestlé must prioritise reuse and eliminate single-use packaging altogether instead of doubling down on the recycling myth.”
Nonetheless, recycled plastic will enjoy the lion’s share of Nestlé’s £1.58bn spend - though £198m will be put aside for a venture fund to invest in startups that focus on sustainable packaging through new materials, refill systems and recycling solutions. This will run alongside work at its Institute of Packaging Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland.
But efforts must focus on realistic solutions, argues Recycling Association CEO Simon Ellin. “I would warn against trying to reinvent the wheel by creating new materials that are hard to recycle. Focus should be on smart design using single materials that are easy to recycle.”
Could it be the best solution will also be the simplest?
In business today profit is inextricable from purpose. And nowhere is that truer than when it comes to food and drink. From single use plastic to surplus food to slavery-free supply chains, the UK’s grocery industry sits at the heart of almost every major ethical and environmental issue that shoppers are passionate about. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
For Britain’s dynamic mix of brands, retailers, wholesalers and suppliers that shift poses both major challenges – and major opportunities. All of which we’ll explore at The Grocer’s 2020 conference: How to have a purpose.
When: 11 March 2020
Where: The British Library, London
Featuring a prestigious line-up of senior industry figures, the day’s packed agenda will include talks, panels, workshops and more. Find out more here.
He joined the magazine in January 2016 as food & drink editor, having been at financial & legal publisher LexisNexis.
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @danielmcselwood