Garbage tsunami

Consumer-goods giants urged to halt plastic binge

Plastic bag in the Red Sea
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Source: DPA/Mike Nelson.

David Katz has the air of a televangelist. But his sermons have more to do with fighting pollution than saving his listeners’ souls. “Together we can put an end to ocean plastic!” he told a recent public meeting in Germany. “We can turn rubbish into a currency, and so create opportunities for people living in poverty.”

Mr. Katz is the founder and CEO of Plastic Bank, a social enterprise that helps people in developing countries collect plastic trash on polluted beaches. In return, they receive cash, donations-in-kind and social services. The plastic they collect is recycled by consumer-goods companies and re-used to produce plastic bottles.

Henkel is the first major consumer-goods firm to work with Plastic Bank. “In the second half of this year, we will work with Plastic Bank to make recycled plastic for new packaging,” says Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum, head of global research and development with Henkel’s laundry detergent division.

The Düsseldorf-based firm sees itself as raising consumers’ awareness of pollution caused by plastic packaging. But the company, along with its competitors Procter & Gamble and Unilever, is under pressure to do more to address the problem, too. Images of floating islands of plastic garbage have focused global attention on the consequences of a rapid increase in plastic packaging for consumer goods. And if the present looks bad, a recent wave of reports have painted a bleak picture of the future indeed. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

Eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, the equivalent of one truckload per hour.

The issue seems to be striking a chord with consumers across the globe: A study published on Sunday by consulting firm PwC suggests one-third would be prepared to reject a product because of unsustainable and excessive packaging. And long-established garbage routes are closing. This year China, long a recipient of exported trash, has announced an import ban on 24 different recycling materials.

The European Commission has plans to force companies to radically cut down on waste. “We must prevent plastic getting into our water, our food and even our bodies,” Frans Timmermans, the Commission vice-president, recently demanded. He is planning a new EU initiative which will make it mandatory for all plastics to be recyclable by 2030.

The task is herculean. French NGO Vacances Propres, which campaigns for clean beaches, estimates that around 20 million tons of garbage are dumped into the environment every year. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a British charity, says 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. That’s the equivalent of a truckload every hour. And each single plastic bottle has a lifespan of around 1,000 years in the environment.

Henkel sold around 280,000 tonnes of plastic packaging in 2016. But it is far from the only company with a problem. “We will make 100 percent of our packaging recyclable by 2020,” Virginie Hélias, vice president of Global Sustainability at Procter & Gamble, says. “Today, that level is 86 percent.”

P&G has just launched a Head and Shoulders shampoo in Germany which uses a new kind of recycled bottle, partly made with plastic found on the world’s beaches, collected and sorted by the US company Terracycle. Ms. Hélias hailed the new product as “an important pilot project.”

The American firm says it wants to sell 500 million of the new bottles by the end of the year. The new plastic production method is more expensive, it acknowledges. “We see it as an investment to convince more people about the value of recycling,” says Ms. Hélias.

Unilever boss Paul Polman recently appealed to the consumer goods industry to intensify its efforts to get away from what he called the “Take-Make-Dispose Model.” Last month, the massive Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods firm pledged to make 100 percent of its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Plastic trash on a Senegal beach
There’s no carpet big enough to brush it under. Source: DPA.

Green groups say voluntary obligations like these are a step in the right direction. “The consumer-goods industry needs a fundamental rethink,” says Michael Meyer-Krotz, a veteran campaigner with Greenpeace. “It’s a question of avoiding as much trash as possible and introducing refill systems for consumer goods packaging.”

Mr. Meyer-Krotz knows what he is talking about: He has helped clean up the beaches around Manila in the Philippines. There, he witnessed freshly-cleaned sand completely covered in plastic trash the following day. Most of the plastics, he says, came from Nestlé and Unilever products.

Recycling is only part of the solution, he says. Industry must cut back its use of packaging. But there has been some progress: Mr. Müller-Kirschbaum of Henkel says their plastic bottles use 10 to 20 percent less plastic than a decade ago.

The best solution would be a re-use policy, as in drinks packaging. But even that solution is not as environmentally-friendly as it seems. To be re-used, each bottle would have to be thoroughly washed, which itself consumes considerable amounts of energy, says P&G’s Ms. Hélias. “These kind of systems are only worth considering if they genuinely improve our CO2 footprint,” she added, calling for a holistic view to be taken.

Georg Weishaupt covers the luxury and fashion industry for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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