In 2020, the impact of climate change was felt in every corner of our planet. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached record levels, hitting 417 parts per million in May. Europe saw its hottest year on record and the temperature in the Arctic Circle hit a new high of 38 deg C.

We have an imperative to act – and consumers are responding; according to Tetra Pak’s latest Index report, 70 per cent now identify packages made from plant-based materials as the most relevant packaging option to them. However, by the end of 2020, the share of plant-based and biodegradable plastics was still estimated to be only 2.5 per cent of global fossil plastics production.

Despite the urgency, the pace of change has been slow. How do we encourage and support companies to adopt lower climate impact materials, like those from renewable and plant-based sources or recycled materials, at a faster rate?

Exploring the opportunities of plant-based and recycled polymers innovation
A few years ago, Brazil’s Braskem started using sugar cane to make climate-smart PE, a material that is claimed to have a low carbon footprint. Imagine a future where all polymers are either made from plant-based materials or post-consumption recycled food grades. It is this sort of innovation – projects that take the entire lifecycle of a product into account – that will help us to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the packaging industry.

Innovative product design is also key to reducing packaging’s carbon impact in the food and beverage sector and beyond. It can reduce the weight and increase the space-saving efficiencies of packages. Innovating with plant-based materials also lets companies create climate-smart products with an authentic look and feel, helping them to stand out to environment-conscious consumers.

Working together in new ways
There is already positive work underway in the packaging industry, with a proliferation of climate commitments by companies. While these developments are worthy of recognition, we must remember that companies work better together.

Increasing the use of plant-based materials amongst all companies in the supply chain, whether manufacturer, supplier or retailer, requires stronger collaboration. Collaborative innovation models, where producers, suppliers, research institutions and start-ups work together to solve a problem, can be one such method.

Maximising efforts to complete the circular economy
We have been working closely with Recon Polymers, a recycling management company based in the Netherlands. The partnership aims to fully recycle two of the constituent materials in cartons – polymers and aluminium – into raw materials that can be used by the plastics industry.

Pooling resources like this is an effective way to decouple both industry and society from fossil-based fuels faster, increasing our use of recovered materials and creating a reduction in emissions down the value chain. However, there is also a lot of room to work better together with policymakers on recovering waste.

The UK Government has pledged to introduce several waste and recycling focused measures, including a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), Extended Producer Responsibility, and consistent collections of household recycling. But developing a UK-wide DRS that captures the maximum amount of waste will take more investment in the relationship between the packaging industry and policy makers. Collaboration like this is vital to take the UK one step closer to becoming a true circular economy.

Improving supply chain traceability and trust
The problem isn’t just increasing the uptake of low climate impact materials. It’s also about increasing visibility amongst consumers – making sure that they know which companies are adopting more plant-based materials in a responsible, sustainable way. For this, we need certification.

There are commercial reasons to get certified: B Corp-certified brands in the UK grew 28 times faster than the national economic growth rate of 0.5 per cent in 2018, thanks to increased visibility amongst consumers.

However, external certification programmes by organisations such as the Carbon Trust, B Corp and BonSucro are also highly effective at building consumer trust. Labelling a package as ‘carbon neutral packaging’ helps consumers to understand the climate impact of the packaging they purchase.

What do we do next?
The climate shock of recent years has spurred a desire for change amongst consumers and businesses alike. But securing our planet’s health for the long-term won’t happen overnight. We must invest more in innovation and collaboration. Industry stakeholders need to adopt a broader view of sustainability.

Most of all, the packaging industry must take a long hard look at the resources it engages with. We can no longer rely on the fossil-based resources of yesteryear: increasing the adoption of lower climate impact materials like plant-based polymers and certified renewable resources is the way forward.

By Gilles Tisserand, head of sustainability transformation at Tetra Pak Europe & Central Asia