Plastic packaging is all the talk among consumers in many markets

Plastic packaging is all the talk among consumers in many markets

Earlier this month, just-drinks talked to Evian global brand director Patricia Oliva about the water brand's recent commitment to make all its bottles from recycled plastic by 2025. Here, sustainability editor Ben Cooper considers how Evian's move underlines the increased attention being focused on plastics recycling. Ben also flags up some other sustainability hotspots for the coming year. 

The recycling of plastic bottles was always going to be among the prime sustainability hotspots for the soft drinks sector in 2018. First out of the traps was Danone, who announced in January that its Evian bottled water brand will make all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic by 2025.

Evian is not the only drinks brand prioritising progress on plastics. Since campaign group Greenpeace published its 'Bottling It' report last March, highlighting the contribution plastic bottles make to marine pollution, pressure has been mounting on soft drinks and bottled water brands. Many have responded.

The second half of 2017 saw the launch of a new packaging strategy for Western Europe by The Coca-Cola Co and Coca-Cola European Partners and PepsiCo's decision to join The Recycling Partnership in the US. Then, last month, Coca-Cola unveiled a new global push on recycling. Meanwhile, UK multiple retailers Iceland, the Co-operative and Tesco have all publicly backed a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles.

If 2018 is going to be a year of accelerated progress on plastics by beverage companies, Evian has put down something of a marker with its 2025 target, along with its strengthened commitment to the circular economy.

Evian global brand director Patricia Oliva describes the new commitment as "a new milestone in our sustainability agenda". The brand had already set - and reached - a target of an average of 25% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) in its bottles. "Thanks to new technologies," Oliva adds, "we can go further. Next year, we are going to reach 50% of recycled plastic in some of our key formats."

In order to achieve its goal, Evian is partnering with "breakthrough technology companies", such as Loop Industries, which has "created a revolutionary technology poised to disrupt the global plastics industry".

Boosting consumer recycling rates is vital if companies are to meet ambitious targets

As critical as technological innovation is in providing rPET at the kind of scale major brands require, boosting consumer recycling rates is also vital if companies are to meet ambitious targets. Brands have a crucial role to play in the consumer education challenge. Evian says it will establish "pioneering partnerships" to redesign packaging and accelerate recycling initiatives, while through its World Without Waste programme, Coca-Cola says it will be investing its "marketing dollars and skills" to help people understand "what, how and where to recycle".

Notwithstanding the carbon cost of plastics production – manufacturing a pound of PET produces around three pounds of CO2 – ocean pollution has proven a more compelling concern with the public over the past year or so than climate change.

For soft drinks producers, reducing exposure to negative publicity over ocean pollution has become just as pressing a concern as reducing carbon footprint.

In 2015, Evian made a commitment to be a carbon-neutral brand by 2020. "There is no other way that we can manage this brand without being carbon-neutral," Oliva says. "Today, with all of the issues around plastics pollution, we need to also change the way we work. That's why we are embracing the circular economy and making this commitment. We need both: carbon neutrality and plastic neutrality."

In a blog posted just after the Coca-Cola and Evian announcements, Greenpeace oceans campaigner Tisha Brown wrote that managing to influence the world's largest soft drinks company was something "worth celebrating". That said, Brown stopped well short of giving the company any credit for launching its plan.

It was the campaign's supporters who were being lauded, even though Brown conceded Coca-Cola's new recycled content commitment was a "big improvement". Campaigners will often compare the commitment of different brands in order to drive change, and Greenpeace has been quick to call out the disparity between Coca-Cola's and Evian's targets.

"Together, we convinced Coca-Cola to take action on the paltry 7% recycled content they use in their bottles globally," Brown wrote. "The drinks giant has now committed to a target of 50% recycled content in all countries by 2030. This is a big improvement on their previous target, and it's because of people like you that they are making this change.

"Could they go further? Evian have announced that they plan to create plastic bottles using 100% recycled content by 2025. It remains unclear why Coca-Cola cannot match Evian."

A degree of competition among brands can help drive change for a category

A degree of competition among brands can help drive change for a category in general, as other players respond to the move of a pioneer brand. Oliva stresses that Evian wants to take a leadership role to spur on others, adding that its announcement was also a "call to action".

"At the end, what is important here is that everybody moves to transform the status quo," says Oliva. "Part of our communication is a call to action, to the rest of the players of the category, the rest of the industry. We know that adopting circular economy is one of the most efficient ways to really manage climate change. That's why we are doing this call to action, for others to follow us."

Policymakers are also paying more attention to plastics recycling. Last month, the European Commission launched the first Europe-wide strategy on plastics, emphasising the "strong business case" for companies to transition to a more circular economy. The strategy aims to make recycling profitable for business; curb plastic waste; stop littering at sea; drive investment and innovation, and spur change across the world.

China's decision to ban imports of waste plastic from the beginning of this year has fuelled concerns about the lack of plastic recycling infrastructure in Europe. According to the Commission, 25m tonnes of plastic waste is generated in Europe every year but less than 30% is collected for recycling.

Plastic also featured prominently in the UK Government's 25-Year Environment Plan, launched in January. The British Soft Drinks Association welcomed the Government's "commitment to an evidence-based approach to establishing the best way to deal with plastic waste". The plan sets a target to eliminate all "avoidable plastic waste" by 2042. While a 2042 target may be logical for a 25-year plan, campaigners voiced concern that setting such a long-term goal will mean urgent concerns are not addressed swiftly enough. As Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven put it: "Britain's natural environment needs a 25-month emergency plan more than it needs a 25-year vision."

The Government was also criticised for not including a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles in its strategy. This criticism is all the more valid considering the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, said as recently as October that a DRS scheme was being considered.

Despite this, the Scottish Government is planning to introduce a DRS scheme for drinks containers. These schemes have proven effective at increasing recycling rates in countries such as Germany and Denmark. In December, the regional government in New South Wales in Australia launched its 'Return and Earn' Container Deposit Scheme. The programme is being coordinated by a coalition of five beverage companies, Asahi, Carlton United Breweries, Coca-Cola Amatil, Coopers and Lion, underlining the practical role companies can play in boosting recycling.

On early showing, then, plastic packaging is already proving to be among the top sustainability issues soft drinks companies are facing in the year ahead. Other 'hotspots' for beverage companies include growing demand for more ambitious science-based carbon targets, sustainable agriculture and dealing with the impact of extreme weather events.

Sustainability hotspots for drinks companies in 2018

  • Plastics, recycling and the circular economy

Widespread concern over plastic pollution in the world's oceans is prompting wider public discussion and understanding of recycling and, specifically, the circular economy. As more companies unveil stretching targets and more ambitious commitments relating to the use of recyclable and recycled materials in packaging, public traction is likely to grow further. Those companies yet to raise their game will risk being named as laggards by campaigners.

  • Carbon reduction and water stewardship

Last year saw global CO2 levels rise for the first time in four years, coinciding with President Trump's decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate change accord. The reaction from other countries and from corporations to his decision speaks to the sustained commitment of the international community to the Paris goals.

Nevertheless, the withdrawal of the world's largest economy is a blow to collective efforts, and the onus on companies to intensify their efforts on CO2 emissions has arguably never been greater. Pressure on drinks companies to set science-based targets, defined as being aligned with the degree of de-carbonisation required to keep any rise in global temperature below 2°C from pre-industrial levels, will only increase over the coming year. So will pressure to set context-based water targets.

  • Agricultural supply chains

Making agricultural supply chains more sustainable and, in particular, improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers has been an increasing priority for food and drink manufacturers over recent years, principally to ensure quality and continuity of supply in the face of challenges such as climate change and migration away from farming communities by younger generations.

The launch of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals at the beginning of 2016 has added a further imperative, as companies look to align their goals with the SDG aims. Moves towards alignment gathered pace during 2017 and can be expected to do so again in 2018. With the sustainable production of food and the eradication of poverty among the key pillars of the SDG agenda, seeking alignment with the goals is likely to be a catalyst for even greater focus on agricultural supply chains by companies.

  • Extreme weather events

Coping with the effects of climate change is not just about preparing for where the world expects to be in ten or 20 years' time. Insuring against - or responding to - the disruption caused by extreme weather events associated with climate change is an escalating challenge for companies. For the second year running, the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report, published in January, identified extreme weather events as the highest risk in terms of likelihood and second-highest in terms of impact.

  • Sugar and obesity

Concern over sugar consumption and obesity rates remains high, with soft drinks producers under pressure to reduce sugar levels in their products and further adapt product mix in favour of healthier offerings.

Having been announced in 2016, the UK's Soft Drinks Industry Levy comes into force at the beginning of April. Its effectiveness in encouraging companies to reformulate - and in raising revenues - will be keenly watched by other governments in both developed and developing markets. In fact, research by Imperial College, London and the World Health Organization, published last October, speaks to the growing concern about developing countries in particular. Lead author Professor Majid Ezzati of the School of Public Health at Imperial College said the research shows obesity rates in children and adolescents have plateaued in higher-income countries, albeit at an "unacceptably high" level, but continue to "soar" in low- and middle-income countries.

  • Digital communication by alcohol brands

Alcohol advertising is - and always will be - a sustainability hotspot for drinks companies. The announcement last September by the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD) of a commitment to develop "new robust responsible marketing standards for digital channels that represent best-practice in this rapidly-changing field" shows where the CEOs of the 11 IARD member companies expect increased pressure to come from in the coming year.

As IARD stated, the explosion of digital channels has transformed the way people understand and interact with brands. This is now the arena where consumers want to engage with brands. However, as with pornography and adult-targeted social media, child protection is a constant and concerning issue. IARD says it is determined to set standards to "reassure others that we direct our advertising only to those adults who can lawfully buy our products".

Alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals is also relevant in this context. The IARD 2012 'Beer, Wine & Spirits Producers' Commitments to Reduce Harmful Drinking' was a five-year programme of commitments to support the WHO Global Strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. With its September announcement, IARD said it welcomes the opportunity to play "a full and proactive role" in further reducing the harmful use of alcohol in support of the SDGs.