How many pieces of packaging do you recycle every year? You may have no idea, but there are few more important questions for the future of our planet.
From the oceans to the deserts, the world depends on our ability to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste. It depends on our ability to create a world in the very near future where every single piece of packaging is recyclable or reusable.
And it depends on our ability to create a world where rubbish isn’t sent to landfill, but is turned into something new.
“Plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today”
Mark Schneider, Nestlé CEO
Those could be the words of an environmental campaigner. In fact, they are from Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider when making a new commitment to improving the environmental performance of packaging, aimed at cutting pollution from plastic packaging waste. The global announcement represents the start of a new phase in Nestlé’s work on packaging.
Nestlé’s ambition is that 100% of our packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2025.
Up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans, rivers and waterways every year. And although plastic packaging is vital for keeping food safe and fresh, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure less is used, what is used is fully recyclable and that recycling systems are available around the world.
The packaging of the future
Doing his part to help protect the environment is motivation for Xavier Caro as he works to develop new packaging materials at Nestlé’s Product Technology Centre in Germany. He has dedicated his career to making more environmentally-friendly packaging.
His starting point is to question whether packaging for a product is absolutely necessary. If the answer is yes, Xavier then looks at all of the options for reusing and/or recycling. In his laboratory he meticulously peels back the three layers of a powdered soup packet, assessing the need for the inner layer of plastic, alongside the aluminium foil and the outer plastic laminate.
However, most packaging cannot be avoided altogether. It is essential to protect food from damage, germs or pests when being transported. And the packaging also carries important information about the food’s ingredients and nutritional value.
New technologies and innovations are making a wider choice of packaging materials and more environmentally friendly formats available. Each time a new prototype for packaging is made, it is tested to see how easy and convenient it is for customers to use and store. But, at the end of the day, if its environmental performance is not better than the original version, it will be not be used. Xavier will return to the drawing board in his quest to make something better.
Transforming the plastics economy
Developing new packaging that is environmentally friendly and fully recyclable is only part of Xavier’s challenge.
“It’s not good enough just to design the pack and make it recyclable,” he says. “It is important to establish how this packaging will be collected and recycled too.”
In Europe that is a relatively straightforward process, he explains, because companies can work alongside established recycling schemes. But in less developed countries the company needs to work with local partners to ensure recycling is a reality as well as a mere possibility.
Single-serve product packaging makes up a large portion of plastic waste in the environment. It’s an issue that companies like Nestlé are working to address. The company is a participant in the New Plastics Economy, which advises developing countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines where marine litter is a significant problem.
The initiative, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, aims to rethink the future of plastics by applying the principles of the circular economy. It brings together key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging.
Around the world, people like Nestlé’s Xavier Caro are taking up that challenge. They are working to make sure our food is packaged in a way that keeps it safe and meets human needs – and ensures the natural world and the animals that live in it are not harmed by waste plastic.
By 2025, Nestlé’s commitment to 100% recyclable and reusable packaging will be contributing significantly to that ambition.