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Plastic pollution in 2021

Sustainable packaging has been a hot topic for consumers for a many years, however the pandemic forced countless consumers to shift their priorities and one main concern that got bumped to the bottom of the list was the environment, writes Justin Nel, lead consultant, IRI. 

In January 2020 the environment was the top concern for most Australians at 40 per cent, this made sense given we had just been through an extensive and destructive bush fire season and the environment was top of mind and media. However, as April arrived and so with it increased spread of the virus and lockdown, understandably healthcare became the key concern at 55 per cent followed by the economy at 48 per cent.

Plastic pollution is a confronting concern but unfortunately, it’s easily forgotten. 

It’s estimated that globally we produce 350 million tons of plastic each year. While most of this ends up in landfills 8 million tons end up in the ocean each year. Plastic in the ocean is not new, consumer concerns about this are not new either. The first report about the great pacific garbage patch was in 1988, when consumers learnt about a trash vortex spanning the oceans from the west coast of North America to Japan.

More recently in 1997 a Japanese research vessel confirmed that the garbage patch had doubled in size. Plastic in the ocean is not new, nor is the consumer concern about it. And while shocking as a large mass of ocean plastic is, it is also easily forgotten as it does not impact our day to day lives. So it was a tough business decision for most to make. How do we within the FMCG industry implement genuine change? because any action by legislators, retailers or manufacturers will inevitably cost money and decrease margins. And will consumers really care enough to pay for these changes, or will they be fickle and just claim to care but not follow through at the checkout? Will consumers expect others to pay the price for more environmentally options?  

But things are finally different. 

Ocean pollution is no longer just out there floating, we are now at the critical point where it is no longer a headline easily forgotten. Our pollution has come home and is in our fridges. Reports claim that we could be eating the equivalent of a credit cards worth of micro plastics plastic each week. Key categories containing micro plastic are bottled water and as expected seafood. And it is these concerning stats that have literally hit home and will hopefully force a change to finally happen. 

However, despite these new concerns on how pollution could be impacting them directly. It is still difficult for consumers to act on these aspirational goals. As many products do not clearly communicate the details of packaging nor do we explain that a higher price may be due to the environmentally friendly packing. So, could this be an opportunity to change on pack messaging, explaining the cost of the environmentally friendly packaging to the consumer? When presented the clear options will consumers do the right thing? Or will they criticise brands for pushing the cost onto them? Or do they understand that their actions can make a difference, and will they happily engage and support brands that are doing the right thing and reducing unnecessary plastic.

Alternatively, can we just remove all plastic? Plastic has a bad reputation, and many think we would be better without it. But is that even practical or possible. Plastic Free as a hashtag has 3,452,981 Instagram posts as of 1 March 2021. But it is important to remind ourselves that plastic when used correctly is an incredible asset significantly reducing food waste. 

The use of just 1.5g of plastic film for wrapping a cucumber can extend its shelf life from three days to 14 days 

And selling grapes in plastic bags or trays has reduced in-store wastage of grapes by 20 per cent. So plastic is a necessary evil to reduce food waste. 

So, what are some options to help the environment while preventing food waste.

  1. Researchers have created a biodegradable material from cellulose derived from tree fibres and chitin derived from crab shells that has the potential to replace plastic and keep food fresh.  
  2. Additionally, many manufacturers are using paper rather than plastic as it is easily recycled and is far more biodegradable.

Where to next?

Rejection of plastic won’t go away, despite the waste reduction plastic has a bad rap and as it enters our food system in micro particle form people will get more vocal about their dislike and try to avoid whenever possible.

Consumers want to see action by brands and retailers, they expect better for the planet choices to be easy to make and the onus is on the industry to help them make these better choices.

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IRI are the leading market intelligence firm for FMCG retailers and manufacturers. We partner with our clients unlock insights using data and our industry leading technology, to access deeper shopper insights and identify opportunities to support business growth.

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  • About the author: Justin Nel is lead consultant at IRI.
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