Unilever, Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo and Mondelez International have jointly pledged to increase investments in flexible plastic packaging and lobby for policies that support the scaling of recycling infrastructure. The five fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies made the commitment on Tuesday (1 March) as they launched a new Europe-based scheme called the Flexible Packaging Initiative.

The aim of the initiative is to assist the transition to a situation in which flexible plastics – often used to make carrier bags and to house products like snacks, grains, bread and cheeses – are widely recycled in Europe. In a statement issued to launch the Flexible Plastic Packaging Initiative, the member companies point to the fact that flexible packaging is used to house 68% of all products sold within the EU annually by volume and accounts for 44% of the bloc’s post-consumer packaging waste. Yet most EU households and businesses do not currently have access to flexible plastic recycling at kerbside.

Flexible plastics have, historically, been more challenging to recycle than rigid plastics. They are challenging to process using existing mechanical recycling infrastructure and, in a world where many collection and recycling schemes offer financial incentives based on weight, have been de-prioritised for collectors who seek out items such as PET bottles.

The Flexible Packaging Initiative has, therefore, called on governments to provide incentives for advanced recycling solutions and technologies, as part of its five-point plan. This, it states, will help to build “regulatory and investment predictability”.

The plan’s other points cover the need for more ambitious plastics recycling targets from the EU and member states, supported by a ban on landfill and measures to reduce incineration; mandatory collection of flexible packaging from buildings across Europe, and a new mandate to harmonise on-pack packaging disposal instruction.

A commitment from the companies themselves forms the fifth and final part of the plan. Participating businesses commit to increase investment in packaging redesign; new sorting and recycling capacity and innovative recycling technologies. They also commit to harmonising the on-pack information given to consumers around packaging recycling.

Additionally, members have committed to co-pilot circular schemes for flexible plastics in partnership with the waste management sector. They are calling on the sector to step forward in return. The Initiative is notably open for other businesses to join.

All five of the Flexible Packaging Initiative’s founding member businesses – Unilever, Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo and Mondelez International – have updated plastic packaging strategies in recent years. They have all also collaborated on flexible plastic packaging before, through a UK-based scheme called the Flexible Plastic Fund launched by Hubbub and Ecosurety in May 2021.

PepsiCo Europe’s chief executive Silviu Popovici said: “We want flexible packaging to follow the circular path of plastic bottles – where we see high recycling rates and we can use up to 100% recycled content. But we need the right conditions in place to get there: widespread collection, high recycling targets, a ban on landfill and minimum incineration. This combined with investments to upgrade sorting and recycling in Europe should bring us to a circular economy and one step closer to a world where packaging never becomes waste.”

Popovici’s first comment on bottles is likely to raise some eyebrows; global rates of plastic recycling are stagnating, the OECD warned last week, while a separate study from Eunomia revealed a discrepancy between the stated recycling rate of PET bottles in the EU and the availability of the resulting recycled content.

PepsiCo recently announced its intention to eliminate virgin plastics from its crisp packets by 2030. Separately, it confirmed that its partnership with TerraCycle on the recycling of crisp packets in the UK will end in April. This decision has been taken in light of the fact that many major retailers, including Tesco, are now offering in-store recycling collections for all flexible plastics.

Shortly after the Flexible Packaging Initiative’s launch, national governments agreed, at a UN summit in Nairobi, on the broad terms of a historic new agreement to stem the flow of plastic pollution into nature.

The final treaty should be published by 2024 and, because of the foundations laid at the meeting, will cover plastics of all types and sizes, encompassing the entire plastic life cycle. Nations will be asked to play their part in reducing global plastic production and improving waste management outcomes.

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