Consumers are confused about plastics recycling, and are holding brands responsible

Tony Perrotta

By Tony Perrotta

The world’s largest consumer goods brands are convening to tackle challenges of all kinds at the Consumer Goods Forum Global Summit. The annual event – virtual for the first time – takes place 21-24 June, 2021, and is already sparking interest among consumer brand leaders.

The PA team will be there throughout. We’re leading a special session with Unilever on day three – Predict the Future – to exclusively reveal the ground-breaking predictive tool we developed in partnership to track and predict the spread of COVID-19. There are a number of other sessions we’re particularly looking forward to.

Day four will have a session on Solving Plastic Waste, which dives into brand responsibility and the current state of recycling technologies.

This is a critical topic on multiple levels. First, consider the confusion around recycling best practices. Waste management procedures vary between municipalities, states, and countries. The lack of cohesion and infrastructure makes it difficult for consumers to know what they should and shouldn’t be doing when it comes to recycling. Brands looking to make systemic changes must grapple with a patchwork quilt of solutions regionally.

Another consideration is, who is ultimately responsible for where a product ends up in the waste stream? While consumers are generally tasked with properly disposing of the products they buy, shoppers are laying more responsibility at the feet of brands and retailers. Take laundry detergent for example. It’s been assigned a hefty job description: clean our clothes without harming the environment while packaged in a way that’s easy to recycle, yet affordable, convenient and accessible. Tru Earth Laundry Eco-Strips have made great strides in creating a waste-free detergent packed in biodegradable boxes, leading the way in sustainability in this sector.

Consumers are increasingly holding brands and retailers responsible for the full breadth of sustainability, from the sourcing of ingredients through to end of life and beyond. The brands that take radical ownership of the entire process and make it easy for consumers to make sustainable choices will empower their customers to make positive changes.

What it means to take radical ownership of the product pipeline

There are a number of responsibilities brands must adopt to take radical ownership of their product pipeline. Finding ways to minimise single-use plastics is one important method. This goes beyond simply light-weighting packages and using less material, and involves eliminating plastic where possible, especially in single-use applications. For durable goods, brands should also consider the potential of recommerce, in which they take back used products for refurbishing and/or material recycling.

With so much confusion around what’s recyclable and how to go about “proper” disposal, brands have an opportunity to inform, educate, and lead. Be explicit about how to go about recycling various materials and make it easy for consumers to do so. Don’t leave them on the hook to figure things out on their own.

End-to-end innovation in this space – from product design through to manufacture, packaging, distribution, and waste processing – is a complex but necessary, and rewarding opportunity. Working with experienced partners in this space allows brands to take the lead by applying time-tested processes in new ways.

How to minimize consumer confusion with clear labelling

Even without standardised labelling requirements, brands can help customers navigate recycling with clear, easy-to-follow labels. Be clear about which products or parts are recyclable and how to dispose of each material. If certain products or packaging materials can’t be recycled together – for example, bottles and bottle caps – consider instructions on what to do with each individual piece.

Instructive labels provide an opportunity to communicate commitments and reaffirm your role as a responsible brand that helps empower consumers to make the right sustainability choices. They reinforce brand values and make consumers feel better about their choice to buy from thoughtful brands making a positive impact on the world.

Considering the value-stream across product lifecycle

While reducing plastic waste is beneficial from a sustainability standpoint, organizations should also consider how users derive value from materials at end-of-life. In the case of plastic, is it easy for sorters and recycling systems to identify, separate, and recycle various types of plastic in your products? Are other materials available that will provide more value over time? Is my material choice a valuable input for the waste stream or a costly contaminant? More durable materials that can be reused in other applications, and compostable materials that can add nutrients to a garden are among the possibilities.

Brands can also consider the economic circumstances of their audiences and how that influences their choices. Some consumers can use recycling to supplement their income in addition to protecting the environment. Some don’t recycle at all because they lack the means and infrastructure to do so. There exists an opportunity for brand leaders to understand each motivating factor and make recycling easy, valuable, and accessible to all groups.

Solving plastic waste in consumer goods

Minimising plastic waste and unlocking its value is a challenge worth pursuing for all organisations. It’s vital for industry leaders to collaborate on ideas and innovations that go outside their current ways of thinking. The Solving Plastic Waste session at the Consumer Goods Forum Global Summit is a great opportunity to learn more about what we can all do to tackle the problem of plastic waste.

The Summit also features a number of next-gen technologies that not only boost sustainability, but can improve and protect entire operations. PA’s special session, “Predict the Future: Unilever and PA reveal their ground-breaking predictive platform,” dives into advanced AI and how it’s being used to predict and monitor global crises.

It’s essential to take advantage of learning opportunities such as these to empower your organisation to grow into the future.

About the authors

Tony Perrotta
Tony Perrotta PA sustainability and regenerative economy expert

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