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Global brands confront the challenge of a circular economy

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 5/31/2019 1:30:00 PM

In distant foreign ports, rotting container-loads of Canadian waste, mis-characterized as recyclable plastic, have become a national embarrassment, but they represent only a small fraction of what is a major global problem. In advance of The Responsible Business Summit West 2019 (October 9-10, San Diego), UK-based Ethical Corporation has produced a 42-page publication that examines the state of the circular economy today, and how governments and manufacturers around the world are responding to rising public demand that waste be curbed.

With respect to plastic, Christie Clarke, research analyst at UK-based CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project), highlights initiatives from some global brands that “have the potential to disrupt the linear business models that traditional fast-moving consumer goods rely upon.” They include:

  • Unilever — It has contributed to the development of a CreaSolv, a new chemical process that may allow for the recycling of sachet waste – single-use plastic containers of everything from soy sauce to toothpaste that are popular in developing countries and notoriously difficult to recycle.
  • Henkel — It has partnered in the development of Newcycling, a solvent that helps recover material from multi-layer packaging.
  • Danone and AB InBev — Both brands are working with local markets to develop and support recycling programs.

Collecting and efficiently processing waste plastic won’t solve the problem if there are no markets for the recovered material. Recycled resins are usually less costly than virgin material, but the cost advantage varies with the world price of oil. Several brands — Clarke mentions Danone, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Procter & Gamble — have set specific targets for recycled content in their packaging. Several others are rolling out products in 100% recycled plastic packaging. Most brands, however, seem content with what Clarke calls “incremental tweaks to product design,” such as light-weighting or improved recyclability.

“To really achieve circularity,” she writes, “companies will need to scale up their efforts and collaborate across the value chain.”



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