Interview Claire, from the NGO WRAP: Stick to the ambition

Claire Shrewsbury is Director of Insights and Innovation at WRAP, where she has led various teams focused on the reuse and recycling of plastics, packaging and other materials for more than 17 years.

Could you tell us about WRAP’s work and mission?

WRAP is an international climate action NGO working in over 40 countries to tackle the causes of the climate crisis and build a sustainable future for the planet. We’re on a mission to help build a thriving world in which climate change is no longer a problem by focussing on resources and consumption. We know that decarbonising the energy system is absolutely critical to tackling the climate crisis, but that alone isn't enough to keep us under a 1.5 °C increase in global warming. We believe we need to reduce the things we use, and what we do use should be re-used or be recycled. To achieve this, we work globally with governments, businesses, and citizens to change the way things are produced, consumed and disposed of.

What is your role at WRAP?

I'm a director of insights and innovation at WRAP. All of the data that we gather falls within my remit. Things like materials mapping, particularly in packaging, how much packaging is placed on the market, and what happens to that from a recycling perspective? How can we help governments with policies to increase that and reduce the impact? I also work with teams at a local authority level around the collection of packaging, looking at recycling rates, collection, and how we can improve our current systems.

What is WRAP’s role in helping the governments, businesses and citizens to transform their approach to more sustainable ways of producing, consuming and disposing of things?

WRAP sits in the middle of a really unique space where we overlap with citizens, business and governments. We run campaigns directly to citizens, such as “love food, hate waste”. And we do a lot of work with businesses, and also directly with national and local governments. It’s a really privileged position where we can see the full spectrum of issues and challenges and be able to provide guidance, recommendations and best practice.

A big part of what we do is focussed on consumers. For example people may think they’re doing all the right things because they recycle meticulously - but then go out and buy tons of clothes every weekend. So from an environmental perspective, we're much broader than just packaging. We focus really on three main material areas: The entire food value chain from field to fork, plastics and packaging, and textiles. We think a lot about how we can transition towards a much more circular economy.

What are your current priorities at WRAP?

We’re at a really important inflection point. The UK Plastics Packaging Act finishes in 2025, so now we’re starting to look at what needs to be done beyond that. We’re looking at whether we go broader to also encompass different kinds of packaging. Our current priorities - and where we’re able to drive real change - are around food, plastics and textiles. Particularly for packaging, where Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a huge focus right now.

In the UK, where we have devolved governments, we have a broad range of policies and drivers.  We have been doing a lot of work in Wales which has resulted in Wales becoming the third best recycling country in the world. The Welsh government has a really bold ambition and blueprint for how they manage collections and the quality is really high. But a scenario that works for one nation, won’t necessarily work for others, and we don’t want to be prescriptive or dictate how nations or councils should operate. However, irrespective of where you live, you should be able to put out the same materials to be collected for recycling, albeit maybe in a different way.

What factors are driving change with respect to packaging currently, and how do you expect this to evolve?

There are a couple of big drivers. The first is Extended Producer Responsibility, which has been on the cards for the last four or five years, but has seen some delays due to COVID and various changes in government leadership. It will place a much bigger burden from a cost perspective onto the organisations that sell goods that have packaging on it. They will be responsible for the full net cost of the recovery of that material. From 2024 they will be responsible for reporting their data on the packaging that they are handling. Then from 2025, there will be a requirement for paying, and that money will be transferred to local authorities as they're the ones that pick up and process the materials.

Secondly, there is the new plastic packaging tax, which has rigorous reporting requirements. For example if you wanted to try and prove to HMRC that your packaging has the required 30% or more recycled content - and therefore is exempt from a tax - you need to provide an extremely robust paper trail. The whole landscape of what businesses are required to do with respect to their packaging has really changed over the past few years. And for those businesses that are part of WRAPs UK Plastics Pact, we are also asking them to fully eliminate unnecessary or problematic plastics. These businesses are committed to help us deliver those targets and hopefully turn their packaging from unrecyclable to recyclable or reusable or compostable. There’s lots more on our UK Plastics Pact here.

What are the biggest challenges or blockers that you see businesses facing on their packaging transitions? Why is change not happening more quickly?

Broadly, having the right buy-in at senior level is critical to success and can be the biggest blocker to change. Once you get buy-in from the right people, meaningful change can happen really quickly.  

How to tell the right story to get that buy-in is a really interesting process and varies from company to company. What target are they going to hit? What is the motivator? Is it because their competitors are already doing it? Is it because it's legally required? Is it because they want to be seen as a leader? Each company and leader will have different reasons for driving their agenda forward.

Cost will always be a massive driver and potentially a blocker. It could add cost to the process or the product - or it might be a really real incentive if it's going to make something cheaper.

The next big packaging nut to be cracked is around flexible plastic film, like bread bags and cereal bags. This type of packaging makes up about a third of plastic that goes into the bin and it can be really complicated to recycle due to the multilayered property of the material. In order to tackle this, we’re working with brands to move to mono singular materials that are much easier to deal with but also working with partners on FlexCollect which is aiming to understand how this type of packaging can be collected at the kerbside.

Can you share some examples of really positive progress with packaging transitions?

A good example is Coke with Sprite and PepsiCo have got 7Up. These two lemonade brands historically used to be in green PET bottles. Green PET has a low recycling value and it can't be recycled back into clear PET bottles. Both brands have now transitioned to clear bottles, which means all of the material, if it’s put out for recycling, is now suitable for recycling.

Another good example is milk bottle caps in supermarkets, which used to be dark blue, green and red, and are now all clear. About 12 years ago, we realised that the pigments in these caps, and also on the labels, weren’t being processed properly and were causing problems when making pellets from recycled milk bottles. We recommended that the industry transitioned to clear tops, and did a trial. This was before Blue Planet and the plastics tax, so there was no burning platform for this major change. The pigments in milk reduced and moved to lighter shades, which was a partial win but still inhibited recycled material. But with the introduction of the plastics tax this was a great driver for the change as it now enables higher levels of recycled material to be used through the move to clear caps.

Another example is the black plastic tray, which was un-recyclable as it couldn’t be identified and sorted. WRAP carried out trials to find an alternative to black. We spoke to the brands and retailers and asked, can we just eliminate black and use something else? But at the time it was viewed as a very premium looking packaging material. We explored alternative pigments, but there was a cost implication and that route wasn’t viable. However, Blue Planet and the resulting public awareness that black plastic wasn’t recyclable, turned out to be the motivator for the switch. Trays are now either not black or they've made a version that can be sorted and recycled. So today there is no unrecyclable black tray packaging in UK supermarkets.

It just goes to show, there are solutions to issues already out there, we just need the right motivators and levers to be in place at the right time.

What are some of the common misconceptions surrounding packaging choices that you come across?

There is some new research looking at how consumers view plastic as the devil. But actually it can be a really efficient and effective material - it's just not dealt with correctly at its end of first life use.

We always say we're material agnostic at WRAP because retailers and brands need to make the right packaging choice for their product. What we need to be careful of though, is moving to a plastic alternative to be able to say the packaging is “100% plastic free”, however the alternative may actually have a worse environmental impact. Sometimes plastic packaging might actually be the best option.

A classic example is people switching to buying their water in other packaging rather than plastic bottles. Firstly, you should be using the water that comes out of a tap! But for those buying it in stores, when you consider the weight of the other materials, or the energy required to make it, that it is collected for recycling, the cost and impact of recycling of the materials, it gets complicated. It’s not cut and dry that other materials are better. So there's a bit of a lack of understanding amongst consumers around what good packaging is, and it is complicated. This is what life cycle assessments are for.

Is WRAP also starting to think more about natural alternatives to plastics and is that part of the work that you're doing?

Yes. At a high level we’re focussed on how to help decarbonise plastic packaging because obviously it comes from a carbon source. So we look at a broad range of approaches to solving this problem. It’s still early days for most plastic alternatives, and we have to be mindful that by using new materials, we’re not creating new unintended problems. Notpla is a nice example because it dissolves, it really disappears after a certain time. There was a time, around 15 years ago, when we had “biodegradable” plastics come to market. All they did was break down from whole pieces to smaller pieces, but they certainly didn't disappear. And then from a circularity perspective, some of these newer materials are still single use, they're not materials that then can either be reused or recycled. We're really trying to think about the waste hierarchy, with reduction at the top. Then when they can’t be reduced, can it be reused? And if not, can it be recycled?

How does WRAP think about “success” when it comes to circularity, plastic use and the transition to more sustainable packaging choices?

As part of our UK Plastics Pact we ask our members to tell us the weight of their material and what polymer it is, what format it's in, and therefore is it recyclable or not. So those are the kind of metrics we track, and also how much recycled content it's got in it. So what we're looking for is that recycled content is going up and that more of the packaging that companies put onto the market is recyclable, reusable or compostable. We've got a list of items that we don't want to be sold, so we ask them about that. What are you selling? How much of this are you selling and why? If you're still selling it, why?

We generally talk in terms of tons of material, and can tie that back to carbon metrics. We can use these standard carbon metrics as a leveller to ensure where possible we’re comparing apples with apples. We're also in the process of thinking about what we should be measuring and benchmarking moving forward as industry and priorities evolve.

If you had one piece of advice for businesses, what would it be?

I think businesses need to be really mindful about what packaging they're putting out onto the market - and really understand what's going to happen to it after it’s used. Do you know what happens to your product when it goes through a sorting line at a material recovery facility? I think the best thing product designers and packaging designers can do is go to the back end and see what happens, this could really help avoid a lot of problems and costs further down the line.

And from a business perspective, it’s about having an ambition and sticking to it. Businesses have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to impact and they need to take that seriously. Some have been incredibly proactive, others less so. Even if packaging isn’t in the public eye like it was when David Attenborough did Blue Planet and people were up in arms, it doesn’t mean that we all take our foot off the gas. It has been a tricky time with reforms not coming through as quickly as hoped. But the writing has been on the wall for a long time about Extended Producer Responsibility so there are no excuses for lack of action.

Do you want to learn more about WRAP or Unibloom's Actionable sustainability & commercial management platform to hit your packaging targets?

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