Reduce, reuse...1 December 2022
Attitudes towards environmental sustainability have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, with climate change encouraging both food manufacturers and their customers to consume more responsibly – as well as cut down on waste. Companies have unsurprisingly followed suit, adapting their packaging to be more environmentally friendly, a shift with potentially revolutionary consequences for both the industry and the planet at large. Andrea Valentino chats to David Clark, VP of sustainability at packaging giant Amcor, to find out more.
For years, activists have battled to dovetail the future of the planet with personal responsibility. To save the world, we were told, we had to eat less meat, take fewer flights, and swap our Range Rovers for a trusty pedal bike. We were advised, moreover, to recycle. Since the 1980s, the plastics industry and its friends in government have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting recycling, exhorting consumers to do their bit. In 2001, to give an example, California put $10m into a glitzy recycling ad campaign, while cities as varied as New York and Beijing now offer cash prizes for leftover bottles and bags.
These campaigns, to say nothing of their effects on everyday people, are far from useless. According to work by the University of Stanford, one tonne of recycled plastic can save 16.3 barrels of oil and avoid using 30 cubic yards of landfill space. All the same, we can only recycle if our packaging is actually recyclable. This may seem like an obvious point – but consider the numbers. According to Society of Plastics Industry guidelines, there are seven types of plastic. Yet recyclers have traditionally only been able to recycle the first two, with everything from clear food packaging to ketchup bottles being left to the dump. This challenge, moreover, is reflected in other statistics too. Of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, just 10% has been successfully recycled.
Part of the solution, in other words, is for packaging companies to develop products that can more easily be given a new lease of life. Given the broader zeitgeist around climate change, it should come as no surprise that insiders are leaping to the challenge, partnering with customers to develop packages that elegantly blend efficiency with a slim environmental footprint. Not that finished products are the way for companies to burnish their green credentials. With the fast-moving consumer goods packaging supply chain worth nearly $100bn, there are plenty of opportunities for manufacturers eager to clean up their third-party relationships. From there, some of the most ambitious packaging companies are taking an even more holistic approach to sustainability, with happy consequences for producers, consumers, and the planet at large.
This is also in part to using the right equipment, which can improve efficiency and provide economies of scale in production.
Packing it in
If you want a sense of how packaging companies have transformed their thinking about recycling and sustainability as a whole, you could do worse than talk to David Clark. He’s worked in plastic for almost 20 years, for the past ten serving as the head of sustainability at packaging giant Amcor. Over his time climbing to the top of his field’s corporate ladder, in other words, Clark has had ample opportunities to reflect on how it’s changed its approach to the environment – and he says it’s been a revolution. “It’s changed dramatically in the last ten or 15 years,” he stresses. “We launched a programme around greenhouse gas emission reduction a little more than ten years ago, but it wasn’t really front and centre for the business. Now I would say sustainability is a core part of our business.”
That’s clear enough if you explore what Amcor is doing. From its tentative work on greenhouse gases, the Zurich-headquartered company now vaunts a pledge to ensure all its packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2025. That’s flanked by a range of similar promises, involving everything from sustainability reports to independent progress verification. Nor is David Clark’s employer, one of the biggest of its type on earth, particularly special. Take even a cursory look at what its competitors are doing, in fact, and it becomes obvious that Amcor’s own march towards a green tomorrow is part of a much wider trek. At Coca Cola, for instance, the company now aims to recycle the equivalent of every can or bottle it sells. Nestlé, for its part, has so far cut four million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, even as it reduces waste and cleans waterways. This frantic activity isn’t especially hard to understand. Quite aside from the environmental pressures at play – one study suggests recycling could cut carbon emissions by over six gigatonnes by 2050 – Clark argues that sustainability is a business necessity nowadays. “We’re responding to the demands that we see from our customers, who are principally consumer brands,” he says, adding that both what goes into Amcor’s packaging and what happens after it’s used is a major concern. Certainly, this point is echoed by the statistics. Over three in four consumers now believe recycling is important. With figures like that floating about, it’s little wonder Amcor and its clients feel the need to follow suit.
These market considerations, for their part, are shadowed by legislative ones. “Whether they’re in place for us, or for packaging or brands further down the line, we are seeing more and more government engagement and regulation,” Clark emphasises. “Some of the examples of that are producer responsibility, which has been in place in Europe for quite a while but tends to be increasing in focus.” That’s shadowed, Clark adds, by similar moves across the Atlantic. Following on from its ad blitz two decades ago, for instance, California recently announced that packaging makers would be expected to pay for recycling, as well as cut or eliminate single-use plastic packaging.
The number of oil barrels that be saved with one tonne of recycled plastic and avoid using 30 cubic yards of landfill space.
University of Stanford
The amount that recycling could cut carbon emissions by 2050.
University of Colorado
Showing your metal
Spend long scrolling Amcor’s website and it’s clear that the company’s sustainability mission is largely centred on its products. Encompassing everything from smoothie pouches to plastic shrink wrap for bottled water, practically all its packaging now boasts some form of planet-boosting trickery. A case in point is the company’s AmLite HeatFlex range, used among other things to warm food in microwaves. Until now, this heat-resistant packaging was made from various layers of different materials. Some, like those that combined plastic with aluminium foil, weren’t very sustainable. But by redesigning the package – and dumping aluminium – Clark now says it’s “fully recyclable”.
Nor is the AmLite HeatFlex, already used by Mars and Nestlé, unique. Other Amcor products have made a similar journey towards a green tomorrow. That includes AmPrima, made with recycle-ready films, and Eco-Tite, a meat packaging product now free from nasty polyvinylidene chloride. Not that Clark and his team are sacrificing sustainability for robustness. In a competitive field like packaging, he says it’s vital that Amcor’s offerings balance sustainability with performance. In part, Amcor achieves this trick by working closely with its customers. “We’re well aligned in terms of strategy,” Clark says of Amcor and its clients. “We then work with our customers to determine the products that they’re most focused on transitioning. We have the scope and scale to develop those platforms on a global basis.” More broadly, Amcor also contributes to pan-industry initiatives, notably the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy.
This broad-brush approach probably makes sense. With its ambitious 2025 pledge looming in the distance, Amcor couldn’t hope to make progress alone. Nor could it hope to fulfil its green aspirations solely via new products. On the contrary, Clark and his team are looking at sustainability far beyond R&D, with supply chains one particular area of focus. Working with groups like Sedex and EcoVadis, Amcor has battled to tidy its partnerships, introducing a supplier code of conduct and encouraging water-saving and waste-management schemes. In a similar vein, the company has developed ‘ASSET’, a life cycle assessment service that allows customers to understand the carbon footprint of Amcor’s packaging from the factory gate onward. The point, Clark says, is clear. “This allows customers to compare the product we’re offering them with their current product, and other alternatives,” he explains, “so that they can be assured that the product they’re selecting has a beneficial footprint.”
Amcor’s revenue in 2021.
Green with envy
Unsurprisingly as Amcor’s sustainability boss, David Clark is ultimately focused on the environmental impact of his employer’s output. Yet, given Amcor is driven by the profit motive and indeed enjoyed revenue of $12.8bn in 2021, does he feel a tension between making green and going green? Clark suggests not. Of course, going green does have some initial costs – non-recyclable packaging isn’t going to disappear itself. But over the longer term, Clark argues that the investment is worthwhile. “In the long run, I think that more people and companies are seeing that this is the right way to go,” he says. “And as those regulations come into play, and as consumer demands change, we’ll continue to see more sustainable products.”
Apart from anything else, the fact that the sustainable packaging industry is due to enjoy CAGR of 7.55% from 2022-7 – according to data from Mordor Intelligence – suggests this optimism is well founded. And beyond the market as a whole, Amcor itself is continuing to bank on a similar prospectus. Beyond its 2025 green commitment – which Clark stresses is very much a work in progress – Amcor also hopes to be totally net zero by the middle of the century. “We’re right now working on developing exactly what those targets will be,” he says, “ensuring that they line up with our customers and other stakeholders.” Time, Clark adds, is of the essence. From heatwaves in Europe to floods in South Asia, the time for action is now. Lucky, then, that Amcor is making it easier than ever for individual consumers to recycle their way to a better world.