Circular economy starts with the right design but it doesn’t end there

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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This article is part of our special report Packaging recycling.

The world faces some formidable environmental challenges, from the climate crisis to plastic waste and deforestation, but they are not insurmountable. With a will, and with the right resources, we can tackle them. This is a task for all of us, including big companies like PepsiCo, which sells food and drinks across the globe. That is why we are taking steps – across our activities – to address areas that can make a difference

Archana Jagannathan is the Senior Director for Sustainable Packaging at PepsiCo.

One of these steps relates to our snack bags for foods like crisps and chips, including Walkers, Doritos, and Lay’s. These are flexible packaging bags – also known as flex-packs – which use soft plastic wrapping. Flexible packaging is highly resource-efficient and cost-effective. It uses super-fine metal foils, plastic, and paper laminated to one another to create pouches, bags and other pliable containers that have unique properties, not achievable in a single material. It is lightweight compared to other alternative packaging and has a low carbon footprint. It is also highly effective at keeping food fresh, thereby reducing food waste.

Flexible packaging materials are designed to be recyclable. While design for recycling is a critical first step, it is by no means enough. In practice, recycling of flexibles  does not happen as much as we would like. While there are extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes in all EU member states – which we help fund, most do not have the infrastructure in place to recycle flexible packaging.

Belgium and Germany have invested in great sorting facilities so that flexible packaging placed in recycling  bags are picked out separately for recycling, but many other European countries are much less developed.

We feel strongly that we must do more to design flexible packaging sustainably. That is why we have set the ambition to use 100% recycled or renewable plastic in all our crisp and chip packets by 2030.

That means eliminating virgin fossil-based plastic in all our crisp and chip bags, and producing them using 100% recycled or renewable plastic.

The recycled content will be derived from previously used plastic and the renewable content will come from by-products of plants such as used cooking oil or waste from paper pulp. Trials will begin in European markets this year, starting with renewable content in a Lay’s range in France, followed by a range from the Walkers brand in the UK. We estimate that the switch to fossil fuel-free material will reduce PepsiCo’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% per ton of packaging material.

We believe flexible packaging recycling should be the norm across Europe. We want our bags to be free of virgin fossil-based plastic and fit into a thriving circular economy where flexible packaging is valued and can be recycled as a new packet. And we want a system in place that makes it easy for consumers and recyclers to collect and repurpose packaging. That is why we are working with our partners to develop the technology and infrastructure to give used packaging materials a new life.

This is part of PepsiCo Positive, our strategic end-to-end transformation towards sustainability. How will we do it? Our efforts will be based on investing not just in the right design, but also the infrastructure and the right new life for our bags.

  • The right design: we are moving all our bags to materials that are easier to recycle, with a simpler bag structure. The new bags contain greater proportions of recyclable plastics like polypropylene, commonly referred to as ‘mono-materials’. These meet the recycling design guidelines developed by the Circular Economy for Flexible Packaging (CEFLEX) which have been agreed by a range of stakeholders active in the flexible packaging value chain.
  • The right infrastructure: we are investing in infrastructure to give flexible packaging the chance of a second life and in advocating for policy changes that will make that possible. This includes collaborating and financing the development of effective waste collection systems in Europe and investing in schemes such as the Flexible Plastics Fund in the UK and REFLEX in Poland. We are also investing in technology to further scale and improve sorting and recycling, trialling smart packaging on several brands in 2022 in Germany and France as part of the Holy Grail 2.0 Digital Watermarks initiative. We are also working with partners in the recycling industry such as Borealis and TOMRA on advanced recycling technologies for flexible packaging.
  • The right new life: we are building demand for recycled content made from flexible packaging to support its use more widely. While our ultimate goal is bag-to-bag, food contact approved circularity, we know that recycling to produce non-food products is a critical first step in the direction towards circularity. That’s why we are also exploring how to turn packets into plastic pellets to be remade into items such as park benches, floor posts and car parts.

All this is part of our PepsiCo commitment. But we can’t do it alone. This is a challenge that we need to work on together. So we need public authorities across Europe to help make packaging recycling the norm. And we need enabling policies to create clarity and bring everyone on board.

That includes European Member States, which should invest in recycling infrastructure facilities. Public policies can help make this a reality, including measures to make collection simple and easy. That means harmonized recycling rules stating the coloured bins to use so that consumers are involved in the recycling efforts. We need this appropriate regulatory landscape in place so that packaging never becomes waste.

We believe in sustainable packaging. Recyclable flexible packaging can be that. It should be the norm across Europe. These bags can be part of a thriving circular economy where they are valued and can be recycled.  We’re already investing in this. We hope others, including public authorities, join us in this endeavor.

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