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2. Value and limitations of plastics

Accelerating transition to a circular economy in plastics

Nicolas Grégoire and Igor Chauvelot
p. 44-53

Abstract

Danone is one of the world’s leading food and beverage companies, whose products are used by millions of consumers. The company uses vast amounts of packaging, almost half of it made from plastic. Danone is committed to acting efficiently and responsibly to create and share sustainable value, and it recently unveiled a series of new commitments and actions to ensure the circularity of its packaging and accelerate the transition to a 100% circular packaging economy worldwide by 2025. This involves initiatives to improve product design and develop reusable packaging solutions, alternative retail and consumption models, investments to develop efficient and inclusive channels to increase collection and recycling, and actions to preserve natural resources by reintegrating recycled materials into packaging and increasing the use of renewable materials.

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Introduction

1A symbol of 20th century modernity, plastic revolutionized every business, and in particular the food industry. A lightweight, low-cost form of packaging, plastic improved food safety and reduced waste. Previously seen as innovative and a source of progress, plastic packaging is increasingly being challenged because of its environmental footprint. Plastic packaging currently accounts for 26% of total plastic waste volumes, and just 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. Danone is fully aware of the seriousness of the problem, and is committed to accelerating the transition to a circular economy where packaging circularity is the new norm.

Plastic: can we live without it?

From glass to plastic

2Danone’s relationship with plastics is intrinsically tied to its history and recent developments.

3Created in 1972 by the merger of Danone and leading European glass-maker BSN, Danone used to sell its products, yoghurts in particular, in glass containers. But when plastic containers appeared in the early 1980s, Danone gradually invested in this innovative material that had a carbon footprint considerably lower than glass. Today, close to half of the packaging used by Danone is made from plastic.

Well-known attributes

4For producers and consumers alike, plastic plays a key role in food product packaging. Inexpensive, lightweight and efficient, plastic reduces fuel consumption in transport due to its low weight and its barrier properties keep food fresh for longer, reducing waste as a result.

5The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading figure in the circular economy, acknowledges that plastic is useful but calls for it to be used responsibly, so that plastic packaging becomes a resource to be recovered rather than merely waste in the environment.

Plastic: the great controversy

6Long considered a precious ally to our societies, in the minds of consumers and policymakers alike, plastics have rapidly come to symbolize the threat that our consumption patterns pose to the environment, primarily in the form of environmental pollution. It is estimated that a third of all plastic packaging ends up in the environment and single-use packaging finds itself at the center of the debate.

7Challenges related to plastic waste management have received extensive media coverage over the past decade, yet in less than three years the issue of plastics has come to top the environmental agenda in several parts of the world, overtaking concerns about climate change.

8The explanation is simple enough. The most commonly encountered forms of plastic packaging are not sustainable because they are designed from a linear perspective: predominantly manufactured from virgin raw materials, they are used once then thrown away. This is a model that raises a slew of problems and requires a thorough re-working.

9This is what is driving Danone to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by investing in innovative solutions and working closely with all the stakeholders – peers, governments, NGOs, innovative startups and the financial sector – to make packaging circularity the new norm.

The circular economy: a solution?

10Danone is keenly aware of the environmental challenges that plastic represents and it has been working for several years to reduce plastic’s impact on the environment.

11The goal is clear: offer packaging that is 100% circular. To achieve this, Danone takes action to eliminate unnecessary packaging and innovates to roll out packaging that can be either reused, recycled or composted, as well as ensuring that the material produced stays in the economy and never leaches out to become a source of pollution.

Recycle or reuse: must-haves for the new generation of packaging

12Tomorrow’s packaging must be circular, meaning it must be designed not to transform itself into waste or a source of pollution.

13In 2017, 86% of plastic packaging used by Danone could be recycled, reused or composted. Over half of all bottled water purchased worldwide was sold in reusable containers.

14Danone has recently committed itself to offering 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025. The company’s Research and Innovation teams are fully mobilized to deliver this major technical and operational challenge. The heart of this research effort takes place at the Plastic Material Techno Center in Evian, in the foothills of the French Alps and the nerve center for the company’s work on the plastics of the future, with further work taking place around the world through strategic alliances to invent the materials of tomorrow. Whether via scientific alliances or pre-market agreements, Danone is multiplying its collaborations to accelerate research and identify effective and sustainable solutions. It is a strategy that is paying off and the company has been able to identify highly promising technologies and approaches.

To support waste management and improve working and living conditions for waste pickers in Brazil, Novo Ciclo offers training as well as technical and infrastructure support.

To support waste management and improve working and living conditions for waste pickers in Brazil, Novo Ciclo offers training as well as technical and infrastructure support.

15Danone has ongoing initiatives to implement eco-design principles for packaging, like evian®’s pilot program to replace non-recyclable packaging film with specially designed adhesive points to keep together water bottles sold as a pack.

16At the same time, Danone is working to design its products to optimize material use and limit waste. Danone is developing reusable packaging and new alternative retail and consumption models while also taking action to eliminate plastic packaging that is problematic (cannot be recycled) or unnecessary (provides no added value to the product or its protection). To this end, Danone is planning to introduce alternatives to plastic straws and will run a pilot program with its Indonesian brand AQUA in 2019.

Creating the conditions for an effective circular economy

17Work on packaging design is essential, but alone this will not be enough to guarantee circularity. To achieve circularity and ensure that packaging is recycled, reused or composted in practice, effective and inclusive systems need to be put in place and fully operational.

18Danone collaborates with public authorities and private partners to optimize extended producer responsibility (EPR) and deposit systems. In France, for example, Danone pioneered the EPR concept with the creation of Eco-Emballages, now known as CITEO.

19In countries where recycling collection systems remain informal, Danone works with local communities, governments and partners – like the Inter-American Development Bank – to improve standards for waste collection and invest in recycling infrastructure. Danone and the Danone Ecosystem Fund have invested in inclusive recycling projects in seven countries, ensuring waste-pickers have a safe environment, appropriate remuneration and suitable welfare protection. As of late 2018, these projects have helped Danone to empower close to 6,000 waste-pickers, with over 45,000 tons of waste being recycled through these projects each year.

20Danone brands also play a lead role in engaging with consumers and supporting research and innovation. For example, evian® is taking part in a research mission in partnership with The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit startup that develops highly promising innovative solutions to help rid the oceans of plastic. Danone’s AQUA brand in Indonesia has committed to collecting more plastic than it produces, including retrieving plastic waste from the marine environment.

21Danone also actively seeks to contribute to meeting or exceeding collection targets set by policymakers, such as the EU’s target to achieve bottle collection rates of over 90% by 2025. Danone does this by supporting the most effective publicly organized systems and has set itself the goal of boosting its investments in private sector initiatives designed to reinforce circular economy infrastructures, particularly in countries where collection systems remain informal and those where there is a high risk of plastics ending up in the environment. Danone has recently invested over $5 million in the Closed Loop Fund, which develops large-scale recycling infrastructure in the United States, and is also looking to invest in similar initiatives, for example via Circulate Capital in Southeast Asia.

22By 2025, Danone will have launched or supported collection and recycling initiatives in all its top 20 markets, which account for around 90% of its turnover.

Preserving natural resources

23Transitioning to a circular economy means no longer using packaging from non-renewable resources. This helps preserve natural resources and keeps existing materials in circulation. To deliver on this promise, Danone continues to strive to increase the proportion of recycled materials used in its packaging and to develop packaging manufactured from renewable materials. In 2017, Danone’s packaging contained an average 36% of recycled materials and its bottles an average 14% of recycled PET.

24Danone is also investing in the development and use of renewable, bio-based materials to reduce its reliance on plastics from fossil fuels. Danone has partnered with Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo, and Origin Materials to introduce the first commercial-scale 75% bio-based bottle by 2021. 

25Danone intends to significantly increase the amount of recycled plastic and bio-plastic used in its packaging. By 2021, it will be offering 100% recycled PET bottles in all its major markets. By 2025, its plastic packaging will contain an average 25% of recycled materials, rising to 50% for bottles and 100% for evian® bottles. Danone will also strive to offer consumers bottles made entirely from bio-plastic.

Action has to be collective and concerted

26Collaboration is the key to success in the circular economy. Fully aware of the importance of a systematic approach when fostering a circular economy, Danone has embarked on an open and collaborative innovation process. In 2015, Danone and Veolia agreed a strategic global alliance to explore together all forms of innovative solutions for managing water, plastics and waste. Highlights of this partnership include a new commercial model for purchasing rPET in Indonesia.

27More recently, at the Our Ocean Conference held on Bali, Danone signed up to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, sponsored by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Program. Danone and the other signatories are committed to working to promote a new vision for plastic packaging.

Conclusion

28Plastic packaging plays a fundamental role in preserving the nutritional qualities of food products. But some industrial groups, including Danone, are fully aware of the environmental challenges that plastics pose to the environment. Continuing to think in new ways about how plastic is used remains the priority so that its uses become circular, enabling society to continue to benefit from its advantages while reducing its environmental footprint. Transition toward a circular packaging economy will continue to evolve as we build new alliances, harness new technologies and develop new solutions. This is why, in 2017, Danone signed up to the New Plastics Economy initiative sponsored by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This mechanism has been joined by numerous food companies to promote an ambitious new vision of a circular economy for plastics by joining the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment as a sign of their concrete commitment to eliminating plastic pollution at the source.

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List of illustrations

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Title To support waste management and improve working and living conditions for waste pickers in Brazil, Novo Ciclo offers training as well as technical and infrastructure support.
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References

Bibliographical reference

Nicolas Grégoire and Igor Chauvelot, « Accelerating transition to a circular economy in plastics », Field Actions Science Reports, Special Issue 19 | 2019, 44-53.

Electronic reference

Nicolas Grégoire and Igor Chauvelot, « Accelerating transition to a circular economy in plastics », Field Actions Science Reports [Online], Special Issue 19 | 2019, Online since 01 March 2019, connection on 22 October 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/factsreports/5198

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About the authors

Nicolas Grégoire

Nicolas Grégoire joined Danone in 2006, where he contributed to the development of recycled PET use and set up an alliance to promote the development of bio-PET. He currently heads the company’s ‘plastic cycle’ team in charge of ensuring the transition to a circular economy for plastics.

Igor Chauvelot

Igor Chauvelot is a graduate chemical engineer specializing in polymers. After having occupied several positions within Danone, he joined the ‘plastic cycle’ team in 2016, where he became responsible for defining and implementing the circular economy strategy for the company’s packaging.

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Copyright

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

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