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Is Lightweighting Plastic Materials Really A Solution For Managing Single-Use Plastics?

by Rudy Sanchez on 01/08/2019 | 4 Minute Read

Amid rising concerns over the impact of plastic on the environment, and the small amount of plastic that gets recycled, less than 10% of companies are looking at ways to reduce their use of plastic, including in product packaging. 

Light-weighting, reducing the overall amount of material to create packaging, is becoming part of an overall sustainability strategy for many brands, plans which include using more recycled materials, changing the types of materials used, and redesigning packaging to use less plastic.

The pressure to reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging isn’t coming solely from patchouli-smelling consumers either. Investors are urging companies by using their clout to hold corporations accountable.  You Sow, a non-profit shareholder advocacy group, recently organized a group of investors managing more than $1 trillion in assets to push major CPG brands such as Nestle, Unilever, PepsiCo to cut down their use of plastic.

The effort seems to be bearing fruit already, pushing brands to innovate and redesign packaging to use less plastic. Nestle, for example, has reduced the weight of their water bottles by 22% over the last decade and is on track to meet their goal of avoiding 140,000 tons of packaging material by 2020.

Technology is also playing a role in reducing the need for plastic. Unilever implemented injection compression technology for some food tubs in Europe in 2015, saving 21 tons of plastic in 2017 without compromising the quality of packaging. They also redesigned some of their pouches and sachets, combining a durable polymer with a thinner polyethylene layer, ultimately reducing their polymer usage by some 1,400 tons.

Reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging sometimes means creating a whole new product line. PepsiCo designed a line of beverages called Drinkfinity, a direct to consumer subscription model that ships flavored pods and a reusable 20oz bottle. Instead of grabbing a drink on the go, using Drinkfinity results in using 65% less plastic.

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Given the economies of scale for major consumer brands, even shaving a few grams of plastic from a bottle can reduce a large amount of plastic from ever making it into supply stream and ultimately into landfills and oceans. Coca-Cola designed a lighter bottle which uses less plastic without compromising performance while extending shelf life. This redesign reduced the amount of plastic used by 980,000 kilograms of plastic in Indonesia.

Similarly, Diageo, whose goal is to reduce packaging weight 15% by 2020, took a look at their 1.75L bottles of Smirnoff and made a simple change—by removing the handle, they shaved 137g off their packaging. With 8.7 million bottles sold, the resulting savings in packaging material is the equivalent in weight to 7 Boeing 747 jets.

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All these light-weighting initiatives not only reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging, but they also decrease the amount of fuel and greenhouse gases used in the distribution of products. Lighter goods weigh less, and that means less fuel to transport. If light-weighting also makes an overall product package more compact, it also lessens the number of vehicles required to ship the same amount of product.

Avoiding single-use plastic would be the ideal solution to preventing the material from ending up in landfills and oceans, but ultimately brands and manufacturers have to balance consumer demands, retailer considerations, and the safety of food and other products when creating a sustainability plan. Glass, for example, can be broken down and recycled, by it is a more fragile material, it’s heavier and costs more to transport. Furthermore, the added weight impacts fuel use, CO2 emissions, and requires consumers to recycle and infrastructure to collect and sort.

But light-weighting is just one approach to reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean. Swearing off the use of virgin plastic for bio-plastics is a great start, or, like some companies such as Dell, you can collect plastic before it hits the ocean. Dell has pledged to use these and other sustainable materials in 100% of their packaging.

Developing new materials that are sustainable and biodegradable are reasonable alternatives to plastic. Packaging made from organic compounds that easily biodegrade, such as those made from lobster shells and fungus, could be commercially viable. Hemp, once used as a versatile industrial material until it became a causality of the war on drugs, is now legal to produce in the US and could replace plastic in some applications.

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Ultimately, light-weighting is just one method for reducing the number of plastics that end up in the environment. Brands should reevaluate their packaging and task their designers and engineers with finding ways to replace or decrease the amount of plastic used in their products. Managers and marketers should be mindful that the pressure to reduce the use of plastic packaging is not just coming from environmentalists, but also from consumers and even shareholders. Moreover, the clock is ticking, and at our current rate, the plastic will eventually outweigh fish in the world’s ocean by 2050.