Nestlé plastics target: ‘Clear’ ambition or ‘greenwashing’?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Greenpeace slams Swiss food giant Nestle's plastics commitment ©iStock
Greenpeace slams Swiss food giant Nestle's plastics commitment ©iStock
Nestlé wants to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. The company says its ‘clear announcement’ demonstrates its commitment to ‘minimise’ the impact of packaging on the environment but critics argue a more radical approach is necessary.

Nestlé has set itself the target of making 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable packaging in the next seven years, with the ambition that “none of its packaging​” – including plastics – ends up in landfill or as litter.

Making the announcement, the Perrier-to-KitKat maker stressed that there is an “urgent need”​ to reduce the impact of plastic packaging on the environment.

“Plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today,”​ Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider said. “We are committed to finding improved solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle. Our ambition is to achieve 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025.”

Certainly, public awareness of the plastic issue has jumped, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – of which Nestlé is a member – forecasting that there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the seas globally by 2050, based on current trends.

And European legislators are acting. At an EU level, the bloc has launched a circular economy plastics initiative that aims to increase recycling rates. Meanwhile, in the UK the government is looking at the possibility of introducing a tax on single use plastics, similar to the carrier bag charge already in place in the country.

Plastics and the circular economy

A spokesperson for the Swiss food and beverage giant told FoodNavigator that the “majority”​ of Nestlé plastic and non-plastic material is already recyclable – but noted a disconnect between what can be recycled and what is recycled.

For this reason, Nestlé stressed the need to take a collaborative approach and support the development of circular economy models globally.

“We strongly believe that in order to effectively address the global issue of plastic packaging waste, we must work collaboratively together, including industry players, local and national governments, civil society and consumers. We all have an important role to play,”​ the company spokesperson said.

The group identified three “core areas”​ of focus: eliminating of non-recyclable plastics in its supply chain, encouraging the use of plastics that support recycling and eliminating “complex combinations”​ of packaging materials.

Nestlé also said it is committed to “playing an active role”​ in the development of recycling infrastructure, working across the value chain to develop alternative packaging solutions, labelling packaging to support consumer education, and “promoting a market”​ for recycled plastics.

The company had previously set itself the target of reducing the amount of packaging it sues by 140,000 tonnes by 2020, from a 2015 baseline.

Local solutions for a global problem

Nestlé stressed the need to develop local solutions depending on specific local contexts. According to the spokesperson, initiatives backed by the company include the development of deposit return schemes (DRS) or extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes.

“The choice needs to be relevant to the existing situation in each country or region. We support whatever schemes are most effective relevant to each local country or region. Countries like Germany have implemented DRS while Switzerland has implemented other types of recycling schemes for PET bottles, delivering similar results in terms of collection and recycling rates. A key aspect of increasing the use of recycled plastics is to favour approaches that create a hierarchy of recycled plastics. DRS is one of the means helping to deliver this. However, a DRS should not lead to detrimental effects to the good functioning of EPR schemes.

“We are clear that in spaces where we can use our experience and technical expertise to add value or take a leadership role in driving industry change, we will do so… We know that the issue of plastic packaging is a highly complex one. Countries differ in their ability, through municipal and informal processes, to collect, sort, re-use, recycle and recover packaging. This is why having the right infrastructure and legislation in place is important, but in order to develop this, it takes time and the involvement of all relevant actors, not just Nestlé.”

Ambiguous targets?

This complexity, the spokesperson argued, is the reason why the company has not set “a clear timeline for this commitment”.

“We want to be pragmatic about addressing these challenges, in a way that is meaningful and most relevant to the individual country contexts in which we operate.”

The spokesperson added that the corporation’s progress on plastic usage will be monitored and reported, with details to be incorporated into the company’s annual sustainability reporting.

Catherine Conway, director of Unpackaged Innovation, said that Nestlé is “one of the better ones”​ and has made progress on its reporting which is “quite transparent”​.

Nevertheless, Conway told FoodNavigator that the industry must not distinguish between plastic that is sent to landfill and plastic that is incinerated – as much plastic waste is in the UK for instance.

“Anyone who makes a claim saying zero waste to landfill is being disingenuous... Incineration is not the panacea that the industry likes to think. Because you get energy off it they pretend it is sort of sustainable or renewable. But we shouldn't be burning precious resources and would you want to live next to an incinerator with the particles or air pollution?”

Greenpeace went a step further, slamming the announcement as “greenwashing baby steps”​.

“[The plan] will not actually move the needle towards the reduction of single-use plastics in a meaningful way and sets an incredibly low standard as the largest food and beverage company in the world,”​ oceans campaigner Graham Forbes said in a statement.

“The statement is full of ambiguous or non-existent targets, relies on ‘ambitions’ to do better and puts the responsibility on consumers rather than the company to clean up its own plastic pollution.”

In contrast, Stefano Agostini, CEO of Nestlé UK & Ireland, insisted that the group made a “clear announcement”​ on the future of its packaging.

“Packaging is fundamental to our business and crucial in delivering safe, high quality food to our consumers as well as reducing food waste. What today’s announcement recognises is that we need to do more to address the sustainability of the packaging we use,”​ he said.

"I am positive that, with a renewed focus and a clear aim for the future, we will make a difference for the planet that truly reflects Nestlé’s purpose to enhance quality of life and contribute to a healthier future.”

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