Nestlé: ‘It has taken us a little more time than we would have liked to address the issue of plastic packaging’

By Jenny Eagle

- Last updated on GMT

Nestlé to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025. Photo: Nestlé.
Nestlé to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025. Photo: Nestlé.
Nestlé plans to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or re-usable by 2025.

As part of its recognition of a Circular Economy, the company will focus on the elimination of non-recyclable​ plastics; encourage the use of plastics that can be recycled better and eliminate or change complex combinations of packaging materials.

Here in an exclusive interview with Duncan Pollard, sustainability expert, Nestlé, we find out how this announcement will affect the confectionery industry.

CN: Why has Nestle only decided to announce this now when the problem of recycling has been in the news for the last five years?

Duncan Pollard

DP:​ Stakeholder interest in reducing the impact of plastic waste on the environment is increasing. Concerns focus on the significant and rising quantities of plastics being produced and discarded in the environment, thereby entering the world’s rivers and oceans, both as visible waste and in the form of invisible micro plastics. Interest is also gaining in the concept of developing a circular economy, where plastics and other waste is used as valuable raw material. Packaging is also one of the main contributors to the problem of littering.

Given the scale and reach of Nestlé’s business, and the quantities of plastic that we use for various product categories in the form of flexibles and PET bottles, we have an important role to play. The commitments that we are announcing, come at a time when the issue of plastic packaging waste has become a priority for us all. Our commitments build on an extensive body of work we have undertaken in recent years, which has focused on minimizing the environmental impact of our packaging.

We are determined to help improve plastic recycling rates and increase the amount of recycled plastic that we use. We welcome the animated societal, political and industrial debates, and are committed to taking a responsible and active role in the transformation to a circular economy. 

The issue of plastic packaging is a highly complex one, particularly for global food and beverage companies who must to adhere stringent consumer health and safety regulations. In each of the 189 countries where we operate, we must comply with individual food regulations and standards that can vary significantly from country to country.

In order to make meaningful and credible commitments, we first need to understand where we need to place our focus, and what organizational capacity is needed to deliver against them. We feel strongly about not making commitments without being serious about meeting them. Because of the size, scale and complexity of our business operations, and the different packaging types we use, it has taken us a little more time than we would have liked to determine the shape and nature of our efforts to address the issue of plastic packaging, and the commitments we need to make to keep us on this path.

CN: What changes can we start to see within the confectionery sector following this announcement?

DP:​ The confectionery category as a whole uses a variety of packaging materials to protect and maintain the freshness of the products. Flexible Plastic laminates have become the main material used in wrapping single serve snacking products, bars and larger tablets. Whilst paper and cardboard remain the main material for boxes and gifting products. Moving away from these flexible laminates will be a challenge as this material provides a barrier in ensuring that the product remains high quality and safe up until the consumer enjoys it. As an important and highly visible category in Nestle’s portfolio we can expect to see changes to some of the brands that we know and love. At present we are working on the detail of how the confectionery category will contribute to the overall commitment.

CN: How will you make the packaging recyclable? - a lot of packaging has individual layers within one piece of packaging - the problem in the past has been separating these for landfill

DP:​ Multi-material laminates are flexible packaging materials, which consist of two or more layers of different packaging materials (different types of plastic or even a combination of plastics and aluminium). Each layer has a specific function (print quality for consumer information, protection barrier to prevent product degradation, conservation function, sealing tightness etc.). We use those materials for pouches, sachets, flow-packs, wrapping etc. At Nestlé, packaging is something we think about carefully. In recent years, we have made considerable progress in minimising the amount of packaging used to pack our products, while ensuring quality and safety until they are consumed. Laminates (pouches for example) are lightweight and compact and so help to reduce transport emissions and the overall environmental impact of our packaging.

We are actively working with governments and other interested stakeholders to address the recyclability of plastic laminates. In the UK, we partnered with Enval and contributed financially to the development of its patented technology for recycling laminate packaging. We also participated in the 2015 ‘Flexible Aluminium Containing Laminate Packaging Collection’ project funded by the UK’s Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). While this technology offers a potential solution, the trial showed that more work is required for the material to be collected, sorted and transported before it can be processed. We are now participating in a new European project called CEFLEX, which will work towards the development of an infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle all types of used flexible plastics across Europe by 2025. 

CN: How will you phase in the changes to become 100% recyclable or re-usable by 2025?

DP:​ Our ambition is that 100% of our packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2025. This is in line with prevailing industry expectations and something we are working hard to achieve. To reach this ambition we are focusing on three core areas; eliminating non-recyclable plastics (e.g. PVC, PS, ePS); encouraging the use of plastics that allow better recycling rates of major plastics used today, where value already exists (e.g. PET, PP, PE); and working to eliminate or change complicated combinations of packaging materials (e.g. paper/plastic, laminates, etc.).

To address complex packaging materials such as paper and plastic combinations and multilayer flexible packaging, we will explore switching to easier ‘mono-materials’ or simple packaging types such as paper, simplifying the number and type of layers used in multilayer plastic packaging. We will also work on changing the colors of our plastic packaging to make them easier to recycle from the outset, with lighter colors, being easier to recycle.

With an honours degree in forestry, Pollard worked for a variety of forest companies and spent nine years with Shell, firstly in their London head office, then in Chile and Uruguay. He spent almost 10 years with WWF International, initially in the Global Forest Programme and finally as the director responsible for WWF’s global thematic work on energy, water, forests, species, oceans and policy. In 2010 he joined Nestlé as an independent advisor on sustainability and became a permanent employee in 2013.

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