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Meeting the Challenge of Sustainability in Plastics

Consumer CompactConsumer Goods and Retail26 Mar 2024

Plastic pollution has become one of the greatest challenges facing our planet. How great is this challenge, what are the drivers for change, and what solutions are available to businesses who are committed to plastics reduction and sustainability?

The issue with plastics

In 2022, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published ‘Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060.’ They predicted that by 2060, global plastic use would triple from 2019 levels. In turn, this could potentially also triple the levels of plastic waste, although improvements in waste management and recycling could mitigate this down to just double.

The publication also predicted plastic leakage into the environment would double to 44 million tonnes (Mt) a year. Stocks of accumulated plastics in our rivers and oceans would more than triple, from 140 Mt in 2019 to 493 Mt in 2060. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the plastics life cycle are expected to more than double.

On the positive side, recycled plastic use is predicted to double, but this would still only account for 12% of the total plastics being used in 2060.

As the publication put it, a “business-as-usual outlook is unsustainable.” 1

Plastic waste is a problem because, once it enters the environment, it obstructs food chains and causes devastation to the natural environment. Toxins within the plastics will also concentrate as they move up the food chain, causing a variety of health concerns in humans, including neurotoxicity, dermal irritation and organ inflammation.

It is clear to consumers, governments and industry that we must now aggressively respond to the issue of plastic use and pollution.

Drivers for change

In addition to the indisputable impact our use of plastics is having on the planet, there are a number of other drivers now impacting industry to make positive changes. Firstly, governments and regulators are introducing stricter rules to address plastic pollution – UN Plastic Treaty (2022), EU Green Deal’s plastic tax, US EPA National Strategy on Plastic Pollution (currently being drafted), and EU restrictions on microplastics introduced under REACH. For more information, read our Consumer Compact article in Q4 2023.

Secondly, many governments are moving to closed-loop systems for their economies. These circular economies incorporate recycling and upcycling strategies within the life cycle of a product, replacing the linear model of manufacture, use and discard. Instead, products are designed for reuse and recycling, reducing our reliance on virgin plastic.

Thirdly, institutional investors and shareholders are beginning to focus on environmental performance. Areas they will consider when making investment decisions include the use of renewable plastics, recycling, waste management and the use of non-petrochemicals and bio-based raw materials.

Finally, consumers are actively looking for products that can demonstrate sustainability. An increase in consumer understanding and demand means there is the potential for market growth for companies committed to sustainability. See our Consumer Compact article, ‘Can you trust ‘green’ product claims?

The demands of the environment, governments, investors and consumers indicate change is on its way. At the same time, technological innovation is providing us with tools for making positive changes, such as advances in materials science, recycling technologies and biodegradable alternatives and the incorporation of new waste management and circular economy systems to simplify the process of becoming more sustainable.

Industry responds

We recently conducted a survey that involved global businesses in all consumer product sectors, from automotive to furniture. This survey found that 90% of businesses currently use plastics in their products and packaging. However, 87% were seeking to make their products and packaging more sustainable, with 52% looking for improvements in recyclability, 52% looking for alternatives to plastics and 89% actively working to reduce plastic packaging and transition to more sustainable alternatives.

When looking at the barriers to change, the survey found the primary challenge was cost (26%), followed by sourcing sustainable materials (21%), lack of knowledge (18%) and issues with regulatory compliance (17%). To achieve their sustainability goals, these companies felt they needed technical assistance and guidance, help sourcing sustainable material suppliers, and access to research and industry insights.

Four pillars

Consumer products manufacturers and suppliers must respond in four areas – four pillars.

  1. Reduction and prevention – remove macro- and microplastics from the environment, reduce their presence in the environment and prevent leakage into the environment
  2. Plastic packaging – assessment of recyclability, comparable property evaluation of alternative materials, verification of recycled content and assistance with material selection and/or redesign
  3. Recycled and recycling – focus on the three primary methods for recycling:
    • Mechanical recycling – verification of recycled content through testing and chain of custody
    • Chemical recycling – recycled polymer quality and compliance testing and verification of recycled content
    • Enzymatic recycling – intermediates and final recycled polymer quality and compliance assessment and verification
  4. Process/product certification – build trust in products and processes with verification against a wide range of internationally recognized certification schemes, including:
    • SGS Green Marks – covering environmental attributes such as industrial compostability, biodegradability, bio-based, hazardous substances presence, recycled content and PVC-free content
    • International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) Plus certification
    • Global Recycled Standard/Recycled Claim Standard (GRS/RCS) certifications
    • EU Ocean Cleaning Standard (OCS) certification

This four-pillar approach provides guidance for industry actions and helps businesses meet their commitments to reducing plastic use, especially in relation to disposable plastic packaging. It will also support businesses in achieving their long-term sustainability goals, help build consumers’ trust in their products and processes and enable competitive advantage in increasingly complex markets.

SGS solution

We have a deep understanding of the environmental challenges posed by plastic waste and pollution. Our comprehensive range of services, built around the four pillars, support forward-thinking businesses as they address environmental concerns. Alongside testing and certification solutions, we also provide consultancy services for eco-design, material selection and recycling and waste management strategies, helping organizations to achieve a closed-loop system with less reliance on virgin plastics.

With SGS Green Marks, businesses can demonstrate the sustainability of their products in a way that is trusted and verified, and which overcomes the perils of a consumer base that is increasingly cognizant of the threat of greenwashing. Certification is only achieved following an independent, scientific assessment of the product against internationally recognized standards for a range of environmental attributes.

Find out more about our SGS Green Marks.

Learn more about SGS’s sustainable packaging solution.

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References

Global Plastics Outlook : Policy Scenarios to 2060 | OECD iLibrary

© SGS Société Générale de Surveillance SA.

Watch our complimentary webinar on Sustainability Solutions for the Future of Plastics

For further information, please contact:

Min Zhu

Min Zhu, Ph.D.

Senior Director, Technical Services and Operations, US & Canada Softlines

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