Consumers have had enough. They’re outraged about the massive volume of plastic waste from retail products, which harms oceans and landfills – and this public backlash is affecting  retailers and consumer goods brands.

Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, and the average U.S. family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags annually. And each bag takes at least 500 years to degrade in a landfill.1 The Problem With Plastic Bags. The Center for Biological Diversity. 2019. Also, Greenpeace reports 12 million tons of plastic enter our oceans annually.2 Wyler, Rex. The Ocean Plastic Crisis. Greenpeace. October 15, 2017.

In response, global activist groups have initiated “plastic attacks,” in which they pay for products then leave the packaging behind at retail stores to force retailers to deal with the waste.3 Ryan, Carol. Plastic Is Big Food’s Next Headache. The Wall Street Journal. December 28, 2018. Consumers are also speaking out against the unsustainable business practice of shipping plastic waste recyclables to less developed countries where they can be illegally dumped or burned.4 Common, David. Plastic Waste: The Supermarket Challenge. CBC News. January 11, 2019.

“2019 will be a tipping point”
~ Wall Street Journal
5 Ryan, Carol. Plastic Is Big Food’s Next Headache. The Wall Street Journal. December 28, 2018.

Governments and international bodies are also taking action. In March, 170 countries, including the U.S., pledged to “significantly reduce” the use of plastics by 2030. This month, the UN issued a new report proving that nature everywhere is declining at a speed never previously seen.6 McGrath, Matt. Nature crisis: Humans ‘threaten 1m species with extinction.’ BBC News. May 6, 2019.

The urgent environmental imperative to reduce plastic creates new opportunities for retailers and brands to develop innovative, eco-friendly products and sustainable business strategies.7 Kelkoo Group. Top five consumer trends set to shape retail in 2019. Retail Week. January 29, 2019

Reducing plastic can be profitable

Consumers today actively choose companies that share their values, such as sustainability, and retailers and brands are taking the desire to use less plastic seriously. One-third of U.S. consumers support a tax on all plastic food packaging, and 38% would be more likely to frequent supermarkets that offer fruit and vegetables without plastic packaging.8 Seigner, Cathy. Survey: One-third of US consumers favor a tax on plastic food packaging. Grocery Dive. August 23, 2018. Millennials and Gen Z are most likely to reward companies with strong sustainability programs.9 Fleming, Molly. Plastic waste: Why brands need to look beyond the PR opportunity. Marketing Week. February 6, 2018.

Reducing plastic has evolved into a business necessity. Investors now ask manufacturers to measure and report how much plastic packaging they produce each year, and how they plan to reduce that amount to support corporate social responsibility initiatives. As alternatives to plastic packaging, retail companies are turning to sustainable alternatives, including cardboard, paper, aluminum, glass, bioplastics and even edible plastics. Major brands acknowledge the need to shift away from plastic to packaging that is reusable, recyclable or compostable; however, choosing these alternative materials will increase manufacturers’ costs.10 Peters, Adele. A coalition of giant brands is about to change how we shop forever, with a new zero-waste platform. Fast Company. January 26, 2019.

62% of consumers like companies that believe in reducing plastics and improving the environment
~ Accenture Strategy
11 Shayton, Sheila. The Rise of Purpose-Led Brands: Q&A With Accenture Strategy’s Bill Theofilou. Brand Channel. December 5, 2018.

Plastic reduction is also a health and wellness issue, especially in the grocery channel. Last year, the American Journal of Pediatrics warned that certain chemicals in plastic food containers can leach into food and beverage products, and interfere with children’s hormones, harming their long-term growth and development.12 Rabin, Roni Caryn. Chemicals in Food May Harm Children, Pediatricians’ Group Says. The New York Times. July 23, 2018.

Leaders in lowering plastic usage

Here are some recent examples of what major consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands and retailers are doing to reduce plastic waste:

  • Walmart: The retail giant’s plastic waste reduction efforts include working with private label partners to achieve 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging for private brands, and 20% post-consumer recycled content in private brand packaging by 2025. The company is also decreasing private brand plastic packaging.13 Vembar, Kaarin. Walmart unveils plan to reduce plastic packaging waste. Retail Dive. February 27, 2019.

  • Amazon: To make recycling easier in America, the e-commerce leader invested $10 million in the Closed Loop Fund, which finances the creation of recycling infrastructure and services in U.S. cities. Amazon states its investment will keep 1 million tons of recyclable material out of landfills.14 Shu, Catherine. Amazon puts $10M in Closed Loop Fund to make recycling easier in more American cities. TechCrunch. October 16, 2018.

  • Trader Joe’s: To eliminate 1 million pounds of plastic from its stores, the grocer announced it will  no longer offer single-use plastic bags to customers, will replace plastic produce bags and Styrofoam packages with compostable alternatives, and avoid using compounds like BPA in packaging. The company is also reducing how much produce it sells in plastic packaging.

  • Kroger: The grocer is phasing out single-use plastic bags completely by 2025 across its chains to reduce plastic waste.15 Kennedy, Merritt. Attention, Shoppers: Kroger Says It Is Phasing Out Plastic Bags. NPR. August 23, 2018.

  • IKEA: The furniture retailer will phase out all single-use plastic products from its stores and restaurants by August 2020. IKEA will phase out plastic straws, plates, cups, freezer bags, bin bags, and plastic-coated paper plates and cups, and replace them with alternative materials.16 Butler, Sarah. Ikea commits to phase out single-use plastic products by 2020. The Guardian. June 7, 2018.

  • Starbucks: Since an estimated 4.4 billion straws are thrown away each year around the world, Starbucks took a leadership role in the retail industry, vowing to ban plastic straws from its 28,000 global locations by 2020—eliminating 1 billion plastic straws.17 St. Louis, Molly. 5 Brands That Actually Did Some Good in 2018. Adweek. December 19, 2018.

  • Procter & Gamble: The company’s Fairy Ocean Plastic bottle is made entirely from post-consumer recycled plastic and ocean plastic.18 Goldsberry, Clare. Procter & Gamble launches Fairy Ocean Plastic bottle made with 100% recycled plastic. Plastics Today. October 11, 2017.

  • Evian: Announced it is adopting a 100% circular approach to plastic use by 2025 to keep plastic in the economy and out of nature through recycling. (Currently Evian bottles are made from an average of 25% recycled plastic.19 Fleming, Molly. Evian issues call-to-arms to brands to do more on plastic waste. Marketing Week. January 18, 2018. )

  • Nestlé, Unilever and Coca-Cola all committed to making their packaging 100% recyclable by 2025.20 Ryan, Carol. Plastic Is Big Food’s Next Headache. The Wall Street Journal. December 28, 2018.

To reduce single-use plastic packaging waste, a coalition of CPG leaders created a zero waste platform called Loop to offer reusable containers for products like toothpaste and ice cream.21 Peters, Adele. A coalition of giant brands is about to change how we shop forever, with a new zero-waste platform. Fast Company. January 26, 2019. Founding partners Procter & Gamble and Nestlé have joined PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars Petcare, The Clorox Company, The Body Shop, Coca-Cola European Partners, Mondelēz International and Danone as the initial partners involved with Loop.22 Rosengren, Cole. CPG giants partner on reusable packaging. Retail Dive. January 24, 2019.

Reducing plastic in retail is a global trend. UK grocer Iceland announced plans to eliminate plastic packaging in its private label products by 2023. Competitor Tesco informed suppliers it wants to stop using non-recyclable plastic packaging and Waitrose is phasing out black plastic trays, which are hard to recycle.23 Butler, Sarah. Ikea commits to phase out single-use plastic products by 2020. The Guardian. June 7, 2018.

As the anti-plastic movement builds momentum, retailers and suppliers need to work together to develop sustainable packaging alternatives that protect people and the planet. At a minimum, retail companies need a clear action plan to reduce their use of plastics. Progressive companies that successfully reduce their plastic waste can gain a competitive edge and earn consumer loyalty by showing consumers they’re listening and adapting to their demands for less plastic.

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