Tackling plastic pollution remains a priority for Nestlé. We sat down with Véronique Cremades-Mathis, our Global Head of Sustainable Packaging, to get the latest on what we’re doing to get ahead of the challenge.
Plastic pollution continues to be a major issue worldwide, and some feel companies are not moving fast enough to address the issue. What are your views?
We’re only too aware of the urgency of the situation. This is why we’ve committed to a very ambitious timeline – that by 2025, all of our packaging will be recyclable or reusable. Simply said, we don’t want any of our packaging to end up in landfill or as litter in the environment.
We understand that for some this is not moving fast enough. The reality is that even with the best of intentions, you don’t transition to 100% recyclable or reusable packaging overnight. You can’t cut corners when it comes to packaging – it plays an essential role in preserving the integrity and safety of our food. As we explore new alternatives to plastic packaging, we put the safety of our products first – and always will.
What has Nestlé achieved since last year, when it articulated its plan to achieve its 2025 ambitions?
We’ve achieved a lot – but we still have a lot of work ahead of us. As of today, 87% of all of our packaging is either recyclable or reusable. We announced during the course of 2020 that we were committing to reducing our use of virgin plastics by one-third by 2025.
We’ve also outlined a sizeable investment to engineer a shift from virgin plastics to food-grade recycled plastics at industry level. The economics of plastic recycling are such that it’s cheaper today to produce virgin plastics than it is to acquire food-grade recycled plastic. We’ve taken issue with this. We’ve committed to sourcing up to 2 million metric tons of food-grade recycled plastics and allocating more than CHF 1.5 billion (USD 1.56 billion) to pay a premium for the materials between now and 2025 – in the hope of creating a virtuous circle in the industry.
What concrete actions is Nestlé taking to tackle the plastic waste issue?
Our plan to tackle plastic pollution is built around three pillars. The first one centers both on procuring for the future – buying new types of materials that are recycled or made of recycled food-grade content – and on designing the packaging of the future.
To that end, we launched last year our Nestlé Institute of Packaging Sciences, the first-of-its-kind institute in the industry with a single mandate: designing the packaging of tomorrow.
We have a roughly 50-strong team of highly qualified staff working on several streams at once: simplification of materials and packaging structures for increasing recyclability; biodegradable packaging; paper packaging, with our work culminating with the launch last year of products using 100% recyclable paper packaging, including Nesquik and our Smarties.
To accelerate our research in this area, we‘ve joined forces with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). We announced the co-funding of a new Chair for Sustainable Materials at the EPFL, with a focus on the research and development of sustainable materials such as alternative packaging.
In addition to this, we've launched a CHF 250 million sustainable packaging venture fund to invest in start-up companies that focus on packaging innovation, including new materials, refill systems and recycling solutions.
Does innovation in packaging hold the answer to the plastic pollution issue?
It is a critical aspect of it, but the issue of plastic pollution is complex and requires much more holistic thinking.
For recycling to work, for instance, we need a well-functioning collection and recycling infrastructure. That’s why the second pillar of our approach is focused on helping develop this very infrastructure where needed. Here, we've teamed up with companies such as Veolia – to name just but a few. This is a complex undertaking – we are engaging with governments, industry bodies, our competitors and other civil society organizations to improve or sometimes develop from the ground up the required infrastructure. In Indonesia, for instance, we are working, as part of an initiative called Project STOP, on developing an effective and more circular waste management system.
Our third pillar relates to behaviors and centers on awareness – engaging with consumers and retailers alike to help them make informed decisions. That is true for recycling but this also applies to reusable packaging.
Indeed, could you tell us more about reusable packaging?
This is also an important dimension of our approach. We know that 100% recyclability is not enough. Our R&D center is also looking into returnable/reusable packaging, as well as bulk dispensing systems. We’ve rolled out pet food dispensers under our Purina brand in select Nestlé shops in Switzerland – and we're now looking to scale up this initiative in more Nestlé shops across Switzerland, while engaging with other retail partners. We are also partnering with TerraCycle on Project Loop – we will soon disclose more details about a project that will be rolled out in Europe.
Reusability involves profound changes in the way we shop and consume – we can’t look at it only through the packaging lens. Having said that, we do think we have a role to play in making reusable packaging more widespread.
Nestlé is operating in 186 markets with varying degrees of maturity and sophistication in addressing plastic pollution – how does that inform your approach?
A one-size-fits-all approach is just not going to cut it. We need to take into account the local context in each of our markets – and that certainly adds to the complexity. And while we continue to push this agenda, we also need to cater to consumers with limited disposable income, those living from day to day and relying on single-use servings because that’s all they can afford.
What do you see as the biggest challenges going forward?
We don't have the luxury of time. The clock is ticking – 2025 is just around the corner. We've made a number of plastic commitments out of a sense of urgency to solve the plastic problem – and we need to deliver on those fast. There's unfortunately no silver bullets to the issue of plastic pollution – we need to continue looking at all solutions.