Our director, Raffi Schieir, joined other industry experts to discuss the impact of lockdown on consumer perceptions of sustainability, and the role of legislation in achieving long term change.
Sustainability is here to stay, and solving the plastic crisis will require more collaboration between stakeholders; those were the two main conclusions from the panel ‘Exploring the ‘new normal’ – where does sustainability fit?’, hosted by Helen McGeough, senior analyst at ICIS at their PET Value Chain Virtual Conference.
The opinion that lockdown strengthened consumer sentiment about the importance of a clean and healthy environment was shared amongst the panellists. Yet the search for solutions to combat plastic waste is well underway. To support sustainability efforts, the role of legislation, particularly when it comes to plastic recycling, was discussed with different views provided.
Ermis Panagiotopoulos, sustainability director at the European Federation of Bottled Waters, notes that when it comes to legislation to solve the plastic problem, a holistic approach is required. He suggests that first and foremost, legislation must ‘be based on science and not emotions.’ The right legislation can help move things along, but alongside this, public and private partnerships will be critical as well as a more participatory approach.
Raffi Schieir, director of Prevented Ocean Plastic by Bantam Materials, agrees that legislation is important. Yet he reflects on the fact that cost savings have had a big impact on buyers. With the declining cost of virgin plastic, many brands have become more reluctant to purchase recycled plastic, which is slightly more expensive. The irony here is that intentional mislabelling to consumers remains common practice. The lack of awareness and confusion around ‘recycled plastic’ and ‘recyclable plastic’ have proven advantageous for brands looking to push products and packaging to sustainability focused consumers. Hence, he advocates for more ‘clear and concise statements of value’ when it comes to claims around sustainable packaging.
For Jan Willem Slijkoord, entrepreneur in chemical recycling & 3D printing from CiorC, legislation has a key role to play in supporting the PET market and helping companies and consumers act more responsibly. Legislation can help address debates around the safety of using recycled plastic content in food applications. Yet Slijkoord also points out that bringing reusable material to the market requires both energy and effort. He therefore suggests that ‘legislation must support the added financial cost to recycle post-consumer scrap.’
Using plastic in a smarter way is a priority for Timm Kirchhoff, senior expert process engineering plastic recycling at Krones AG. He reiterates that multilayer plastics are difficult to recycle. For example, the use of different materials for labels on plastic bottles complicates the recycling process. Contamination remains an issue for recyclers and legislation should be put in place to help improve collection systems.
Despite the challenges faced, it is clear that the shift to more sustainable packaging materials such as recycled plastic is on course, and that the industry is responding to this need. A focus on local solutions and less bias towards recycled material coming from developing countries is recommended. With regard to the future, the panellists agree that closer collaboration across the supply chain would provide more opportunities to learn from each other and harness best practices around the world.