The importance of plastics in the global economy cannot be overstated. Plastic products are used in almost every sector and have contributed to major advances in public health, food security and general wellbeing over the past few decades.
The versatility and low cost of plastic has made it the backbone of packaging solutions within the branded consumer products sector. Packaging constitutes a significant portion of global plastics use; but perhaps more importantly, consumer brands are the most visible participants in the unsustainably high levels of disposal of single use plastics, which is causing growing pollution of both land and sea.
It is beginning to be appreciated that the rise of plastic consumption in emerging markets to developed market levels would have a profound environmental impact – if China and India were already consuming as much plastic as the USA, current global production levels would be almost 40% higher. Consumer and government backlashes against single use plastic packaging have already begun in certain geographies and will inevitably spread. We believe consumer companies, therefore, have ample financial and ethical incentive to be exploring alternatives to single use plastic packaging immediately.
Sustainable alternatives to conventional plastic, such as bioplastics and bio-additives, are promising but are at an early stage of development. Recycling cannot be depended upon in emerging markets. Perhaps the most innovative, cost-effective and comprehensive solutions involve either a drastic reduction in or complete removal of plastic from packaging. Those businesses that successfully reduce their plastics footprint will gain a competitive advantage over the peers and will ensure that their growth trajectory is genuinely sustainable into the long term, however consumer or regulatory behaviour evolves.