Consumer Brands Struggle to Find Alternatives to Plastic

Despite all the public rhetoric about ocean plastic and land fills with plastic that will last a thousand years, companies are hard pressed to find good alternatives to the “miracle of plastic.” Plastic packaging is so light, strong, versatile, and attractive that the benefits are clear. What is not so clear is what a modern world without plastic may look like.

Consumers do care about the environment but not nearly as much as activists groups think they do. When consumers see inconvenience they typically are not as enthusiastic about paying more, weighing more or other notable disadvantages of alternatives to plastic.

Meanwhile many huge brands say they are devoted to reducing the plastic waste problems.

The Wall Street Journal reported in November of 2019 that many top brands struggle to make much change in plastic container use. Unilever and Nestlé are trying to use less and switch to other materials while trying to persuade customers to try refillable containers. But other materials have their own problems, and refilling glass or plastic is a logistics nightmare.

Brands like Dove, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise have pledges to reduce their plastic container use from 700,000 tons by 100,000 tons by 2030; not much of a reduction after a decade of trying. These announcements are mostly PR and wishful thinking. They are also testing Cif household cleaner in a concentrated form asking customers to add water to save the number of containers. If it works it would reduce plastic use by 75%; every bottle is diluted by three-quarters. Of course another bottle is needed to hold each diluted bottle. Unilever has also said they will reduce use of virgin (never used before) plastic by half in five years. However to do so they will need to add more recycled resin to each bottle a commodity that is in short supply now. People are not recycling enough to supply these efforts.

Recently Coke and PepsiCo have dumped a plastics association membership in an effort to get Greenpeace off their backs. While dropping a membership will do nothing to help the issue, they seem desperate to look like they are helping the earth. As small a gesture as it is, the action does forecast a future of consumer heat even if it comes through environmental organizations. Ironically, plastics associations are working hard to find just the alternative plastic solutions consumers will love. The lack of the largest corporation’s support for plastics associations will only sabotage solutions.

Under the same pressure, Starbucks announced that they will redesign their coffee cups and tops to use less plasticiv. But the new design will reduce plastic by only 9%, not impressing environmental groups. Starbucks is also working on how to get customers to bring reusable cups to the store for refilling, but it knows changing consumer habits is slow and difficult.

Re-Use Vs. Re-Cycled

The Wall Street Journal reported on a “fledgling” effort to re-using bottles over again. Some plastics are not conducive to refilling as they are not easy to clean. This recalls the milkman who brought milk to the porch and then picked them up when used.

Longmont Dairy in Denver knows this well. For over a half century they have sterilized strong glass bottles before filling them with milk, then picking them up each week. Specially built bottle washers are used to re-wash and sterilize the bottles over and over. They can do this economically because they go to the same houses every week. Because they deliver on a standard route, their costs are just $1.50 per delivery. They use the glass at least 20 times, but it could be more because the glass can be cleaned due to its density until it chips or breaks. Plastic is much more porous and presents more of a challenge. It also scratches and looks worn out after a few trips, devaluing the sense of quality.

Longmont Dairy already has a full line of coffee in bottles. They bottle juice, lemonade, and are considering jars for yogurt and even dry foods, such as granola. For a consumer company to accomplish reuse adds another loop which doubles distribution costs. Will the consumer pay an additional cost for this?

A company called TerraCycle, launched a service called Loop last summer in New York and London. They are attempting to sell Axe deodorant, Haaagen-Daze ice cream, and Pantene shampoo in containers designed to be returned and refilled. But these niche consumer numbers are limited and the London launch has already been halted to work more on logisticsv problems. The logistics of reuse and re-filling are considerable. Most companies don’t have plants that have refill capability, and many are filled oversees the first time, which doubled the facilities needed for the operation. Better to leave this to the milkman!

A survey in August by Global Data indicated that up to 70% of customers would buy food from a refill store. This concept would have large containers of soap, juice, nuts or other fluid and be poured into customer returned containers. How many would buy milk or hair conditioner this way is questionable. Don’t mix up the contents!

Currently just 3% of packaging from 139 consumer goods companies are designed to be re-usable, the Journal reports.

Alternatives to plastics are not likely to “save the planet” soon. But many new ideas are being generated. Perhaps the one closest and more realistic option has already been underway for a couple years. New forms of plant-based resins are being used that are less harmful to the environment than petroleum-based resins. Some of these even degrade in compostable landfills. Some reduce the production of CO2, and others turn the waste into fuel. Completely bio-degradable resin is not yet invented that can be produced in any kind of volume. Yet incremental steps to the problem along with better recycling systems and a customer that actually does care enough to recycle carefully can go a long way to mitigating this plastic mess we are in.

Let’s hope regulation does not throw new innovated resins out with straws and plastic bags before they even get started.

Microdyne Plastics keeps tabs on new plastic polymer developments and production issues for our customers. We hope this blog will keep you updated.

So, how is all this playing in the world of environmental activists? Not so well, according to Greenpeace.

The nonprofit acknowledges that companies are switching from plastic to other forms of single-use packaging, investing in partnerships to improve recycling and waste management, and looking to emerging technologies. But these solutions, it says, “enable these companies to continue business as usual rather than reducing demand for plastic.” It criticizes what it calls “false solutions that fail to move us away from single-use plastic, diverting attention away from better systems, perpetuating the throwaway culture and confusing people in the process.”

The Greenpeace report focuses on a subset of products called fast-moving consumer goods, or FMCG. These include low-cost, non-durable household products such as packaged foods, beverages, toiletries, over-the-counter drugs and other consumables.

Related posts