The bottled water brands say they want to see a future where all packaging is made entirely from recycled or renewable materials (or both); are designed to be fully reusable or recyclable; and all packaging is recovered or recycled.
The report 'Towards sustainable packaging' from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), created on behalf of a group of bottled water brands, explores four areas which can help achieve this goal.
The report says a systematic approach, bringing together all stakeholders across the value chain, government and society, is required to ‘rethink existing business models and implement workable solutions to eliminate plastic packaging waste and to have the greatest impact’.
While the report sets out ambitions for soft drinks and bottled water in the UK, its authors say that other countries and sectors can learn from the industry and apply within their own sectors.
In the UK, around 72% of soft drinks are packaged in plastic. Plastic bottles are frequently chosen by soft drinks brands, thanks to its lightweight properties and subsequent carbon savings in transport, and due to its effectiveness in preventing breakages and food waste.
And yet one of the very qualities that makes plastic so attractive as a beverage packaging material – its durability – also means it does not break down if it ends up as litter in the environment.
With the UN declaring a ‘plastics crisis’, there is more public and political awareness and concern surrounding plastic waste than ever before. “Multiple intersections with public health, the climate change agenda, resource scarcity, and human impacts on biodiversity create a perfect storm of forces, meaning that industry has an unprecedented opportunity to take a leadership role on the issue of plastic packaging waste,” says the report.
And this, it emphasises, means action.
The report is published by CISL on behalf of the Future of Plastic Packaging Group, whose members are: Brecon Mineral Waters, Danone Waters (UK and Ireland), Harrogate Water Brands, Highland Spring Group, Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Montgomery Waters, Natural Hydration Council, Nestlé Waters UK, Shepley Spring and Wenlock Spring. The report was reviewed by a panel of independent experts.
'The capabilities of existing technology should not limit ambition'
The industry needs to think outside the box, challenge the status quo, and push perceptions of what is possible, says the report.
“Business as usual will not solve the plastic packaging waste challenge,” it says.
“The bottled water and soft drinks value chain does not yet have all the answers, but through collaborative action, needs to invest in finding them. The capabilities of existing technologies should not limit ambition.”
Research and development will play a role in this transformation, and so investment is needed in this sector, it says.
“For example, it is currently not possible to recycle PET infinitely. Could it be in the future, with the advent of chemical recycling combined with conventional mechanical methods?
“Our vision attempts to strike a balance between what is now feasible and how the ideal sustainable bottled water and soft drinks economy will stimulate new ideas and exciting innovations.
“Some of the aspirations in the vision may challenge existing business and delivery models. For example, potential alternative delivery systems, such as bottle refill, may not suit all products and will need a full life cycle impact assessment alongside other options.
“By law, mineral and spring water must be bottled at source, while some carbonated soft drinks cannot be made using syrup, making existing dispensing technology unsuitable. These are not easy challenges to overcome. Bottled water and soft drinks companies need to address these difficult questions and recognise they are part of a wider ecosystem and have a role to play in shaping the future – even if that means recalibrating existing business models and taking risks on new technologies.”
There remain, also, a great deal of unknowns.
“These range from whether bio-based materials can be used for bottled water and soft drinks at scale, to how biodegradable materials would fit into existing recycling streams, to whether it is feasible for bottled water and soft drinks to be delivered in any way other than in packaging that is used once before disposal by the consumer.
"We do not know if it will even ever be achievable to totally eliminate plastic packaging waste. However, there is a need to act now, before all of these unknowns can be addressed, and to set a high level of ambition, even if it seems hard to achieve in the current context.
“While the urge to search for quick fixes may be strong, we recognise the complexities of the plastics challenge and the need to avoid unintended consequences. It also recognises that while government and business are already starting to address the issue, there is still a need to set ambitious goals to push the sector and create a transformational shift to eliminate plastic packaging waste.”
How we get there: a plan to eliminate plastic packaging waste from UK bottled water and soft drinks value chain
Vision: An efficient and circular resource management system
- Recycling collection rate of bottled water and soft drinks packaging to increase at least 90%
- Incentivised minimum requirement of at least 70% recycled content for plastic bottled water and soft drinks packaging
- Consistent nationwide recycling collection system enabled by increased and improved infrastructure
Vision: Find the best packaging format
- All bottled water and soft drink packaging made from 100% recyclable or reusable material resulting in non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle plastics being phased out
- All bottled water and soft drinks packaging made from feedstock that consists of at least 70% recycled material, to achieve incentivised minimum
- Industry standard for optimal zero plastic waste, identify low-impact bottled water and soft drinks packaging
Vision: Shift in consumer behaviour and societal norms
- Clear, consistent labelling systems for consumers
- New programme of evidence-based behaviour change campaigns
Vision: Explore alternative delivery models
- Explore refillable packaging and reduce the follow of packaging material to consumers
Source: University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2018). Towards sustainable packaging: A plan to eliminate plastic packaging waste from UK bottled water and soft drinks. Cambridge, UK: the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.