Interview with Gian de Belder, Principal Scientist and Packaging Technologist at Procter & Gamble
- The problem of plastics waste must be tackled globally
- Part of the solution lies in the reduction of packaging material
- Chemical recycling is a future option
Plastics packaging makes up a large part of the waste in the oceans and on land. What does P&G, as important consumer goods producer, do about it?
De Belder: Packaging waste does not belong in nature, that much is sure. We see it as our duty to do something about it. And we act accordingly. We engage in various initiatives and have our own programmes to ensure that this challenge is tackled purposefully. For us, global collaboration across the entire value-added chain is of crucial importance, as it is the most effective way to address major social challenges such as the waste issue and to set up closed recycling systems for plastics.
Can you give us an example?
De Belder: There is a whole string of examples; I would like to name two particularly important ones: The Alliance to End Plastic Waste focuses on infrastructure, technological innovation, education and active restructuring in Southeast Asia and is mainly aimed at avoiding plastic waste in the environment. P&G is active in this alliance at top management level: It is managed by a CEO with an investment of 1.5 billion US dollars provided by the participating companies. The second example is the HolyGrail project. This is a comprehensive cooperation across the entire value-added chain. It deals with coping with the challenges of automated sorting by applying new technologies, e.g. by integrating digital watermarks. The fact is that at present sorting is still a weak point in the recycling process.
Moreover, we pursue many corporate projects as our sustainability goals are unambiguous and very transparent: Our set objective is to protect the oceans and to make all our packaging completely recyclable or reusable. In addition, we want to push ahead with new recycling technologies such as PureCycle. This is a procedure that converts used plastics into practically pure quality plastics.
Is recycling the only way to avoid mountains of waste?
De Belder: Recycling means to maintain plastics in the cycle as long as possible. That’s very effective. If, at the same time, material can be saved, we will have taken a giant step further. There are five pillars to ensure that circular economies really function: product design, collection systems, consumers, technical innovations and the development of sales markets that accept secondary raw resources. For example, one of P&G’s goals is to double the amount of PCR.
Still, you need to look very carefully at what you are doing. The change to multilayer materials could be reduction option, but in recycling it currently still presents challenges. We aim at reducing the use of new fossil plastics by half by 2030. Moreover, reusable packaging is a possibility to achieve circular savings. We are foundation partner of LOOP, an initiative enabling multiple use of packaging. First projects have already been started in Paris and New York. Many of our brands are part of the initiative. To put it in a nutshell: recycling is not the only way, the solution is an interaction of different approaches. Global problems cannot be solved single-handedly.
Recycling requires collection systems. But in many countries, they do not exist. What can be done?
De Belder: Countries that have them must ensure that they are harmonised and have similar collection standards. In countries that do not have any collection systems, for instance Southeast Asia, we must establish an infrastructure and raise awareness of environmental protection. This is the focus of the above-mentioned Alliance to End Plastic Waste
What are the main obstacles for recycling of plastics packaging?
De Belder: All five pillars mentioned earlier must be in place and adjusted to make it work – harmonisation is crucial. A great challenge is the wide range of different materials used for packaging, and whose individual function is unique. The good thing about it is that nowadays the focus is on new packaging structures to make them recyclable. So far, we have mainly applied mechanical recycling, but I think that there are also future perspectives for other technologies, for example chemical recycling.
Will a functioning circular economy improve the bad image of plastics?
De Belder: Personally speaking, I do hope so. Plastics per se are not bad, and in many cases, the alternatives are not any better. The general problem is not plastics but plastics in the environment. We should objectify the emotional discussion on plastics. Moreover, plastics in the oceans did not ask to be dumped there. It is the consequence of incorrect handling of plastics. Many scientific studies prove the benefits of plastics. Unfortunately, this is an aspect neglected in the public debate. Plastics have a wide range of applications and they are often compatible with sustainability to a large extent. To achieve this, we need the right materials management – and consumer awareness is a key factor.