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Supply Chain
The Sum of Small Efforts:
Engaging Suppliers to Ensure Brand Plastic Reduction

Whether the priority is to reduce the plastic in packaging, increase the recycled content or just figure out where to start, it all begins with opening up a dialogue with suppliers. That is exactly what one major US retailer did when it sought to re-energise its plastics and packaging pledge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, Plastic Free July once again brought together millions of people across the globe to be part of the solution to plastic pollution. The great thing about the yearly initiative is that it provides its 100 million+ participants with a substantial set of resources to help them make changes to reduce their use of household single-use plastic. But plastic pollution is obviously not something that consumers can tackle alone — it requires a collective and collaborative approach, one in which brands, retailers and their respective packaging suppliers need to get involved.

Regulatory pressure

One way the UK government decided to get businesses and manufacturers to act was by introducing a tax on plastic packaging in April 2022 that aims to provide an economic incentive for businesses to investigate and increase the amount of recycled plastic in their packaging. This is done by taxing any packaging in (or imported into) the UK that does not contain at least 30 percent recycled plastic. However, if the price of recycled materials significantly increases or oil prices fall, then a fixed tax (of £200 per metric tonne of virgin plastic used) will not be enough to tackle the problem. It needs be flexible enough to deter businesses from sourcing cheaper virgin plastics and just paying the tax.

Is it helping?

Many have argued that the UK tax is insufficient to have a positive impact. However, anything that succeeds in increasing the demand for recycled plastic — and in turn boosts the pitiful 9 percent of plastic currently being recycled globally — is still a step in the right direction. In the sustainability world, we take all the small wins we can get.

Plastic has a limited number of times it can be recycled before it is no longer useable, and the virgin plastic industry is showing no sign of slowing down production. This makes the increase in recycled plastic packaging only the pilot project of a much larger journey for brands and retailers.

Here at Supply Pilot, we’ve love to tell you that the majority of brands, retailers and their suppliers are smashing their recycled content, recyclability and reduction targets and are ready to start eliminating plastic from their packaging completely and work with suppliers to innovate for home-compostable alternatives. But this is not the case.

Trust the process — talk to your suppliers

Whether the priority is to reduce the plastic in packaging, increase the recycled content, or even just figure out where to start with plastic packaging, it all begins with opening up a dialogue with suppliers. That is exactly what one major US retailer did when it sought to re-energise its plastics and packaging pledge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the climate challenges, failing to meet a public pledge was not an option; and the retailer recognised it needed external support to accelerate its ambitious targets, which pledged three requirements:

  • To be 100 percent recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable by 2025

  • Plastics must contain 20 percent recycled content by 2025

  • Clear recycling communications, including QR codes, by 2022

Onboarding suppliers was critical. This was the catalyst that set everything else in motion — from conveying accurate information about degradability and recyclability, to tackling waste, increasing recycled content, and collaborating on solutions to reduce plastic use. Eventually, it led to a final response rate of over 90 percent for the retailer — well over the industry average of 25 percent for this type of collaborative activity.

The lessons learned by the retailer example showcase that brands need to understand how ready and capable suppliers are to provide information about the composition of packaging materials. Some suppliers might be mature enough in their sustainability journeys to offer more sustainable solutions; others might not even have a packaging technologist on their staff. This is where a supplier-readiness survey, like the one deployed by the retailer, comes into play to segment the supply base by maturity and capability. This enables brands and retailers to better understand their suppliers and set realistic targets. A target might outline a desired increase in recycled plastic content or an overall reduction in the amount of packaging needed. If this seems too far-fetched due to lack of supplier readiness, interim targets can help brands and retailers to collaborate with current suppliers to adhere to any new legislation and reduce any environmental impact where possible, prior to tackling more ambitious targets. Remember, success is the sum of small efforts.

Tracking progress towards a target requires a reference point for the start of the project — asking suppliers to complete a bill of materials for packaging establishes this benchmark. It is then time to activate and align packaging suppliers to this initiative and get them all singing from the same hymn sheet about plastic. A supplier-readiness survey paves the way for this beautifully, as it enables brands to target communications and supplier self-help to specific groups of suppliers based on their knowledge and completion of the benchmark exercise.

Suppliers need to be consistently held accountable to providing accurate and up-to-date packaging-composition data and fulfilling commitments they have made to reach specific packaging goals. Only then can brands and retailers make substantial, evidence-backed claims about packaging and be ready to face the scrutiny about plastic packaging that is to come — the UK plastic tax is only the beginning.