From Amcor to Dow to Veolia, what the 'New Plastics Economy' means

ShutterstockAnastasia Grig
Polystyrene foam "peanuts," a big environmental challenge.

The leaders of 15 global brands have recommended the replacement of three widely used chemicals as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative.

The foundation’s new report, "The New Plastics Economy — Catalyzing Action," released last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, recommended replacing polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (EPS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as packaging materials globally.

The recommendation significantly could transform the plastics industry, setting off a search for replacement materials. The report singled out these three materials as "uncommon" plastic packaging materials whose replacement would make a "huge impact."

Replacement of PVC, EPS and PS would enhance the economics of recycling and reduce the potential negative impact of these materials as "substances of concern," the report said.

Polystyrene has raised occupational safety concerns in its production. EPS foam crumbles readily into small pellets widely found during beach cleanups and in the digestive system of birds and fish that can mistake it for food. PVC has been used for packaging and intravenous medical bags, and contains plasticizers with phthalates linked to a host of health disorders that can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system.

The signatories include the leaders of Amcor, Carrefour, Coca-Cola Co, Constantina Flexibles, Danone, L’Oreal, Marks & Spencer, Mars, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Sealed Air, Suez, Unilever, Veolia and perhaps most significant, Dow Chemical. Dow CEO Andrew Liveris praised the report as "a key step in delivering science-based solutions by providing options that help us close resource loops for plastics." 

EPS has been widely used as takeout food packaging but rarely recycled and is often contaminated with waste food, making it harder to recycle. EPS foam may pose a higher risk to marine animals than other plastics due to research showing it can accumulate high concentrations of water-borne toxins in a short time frame. PS has caused decreased reproduction in laboratory populations of oysters and fish.

Several companies have moved to phase out use of EPS foam following the passage of bans and restrictions on foam in more than 100 U.S. cities. At least eight countries also have banned some uses of PS foam.

The MacArthur report also called for a global protocol to reduce the number of plastics in use to those that are least toxic and most recyclable. Its recommendations align with As You Sow’s long-standing efforts to promote sustainable packaging.

In 2011, As You Sow engaged McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Brands, which were using EPS foam beverage cups, to phase out their use in the U.S. McDonald’s agreed to do so in 2013 and opted for paper cups. Dunkin’ also committed to phaseout but has not yet followed through. Due to increasing concerns about the impact of plastic pollution in the ocean, As You Sow returned this year to ask McDonald's to expand the foam cup phaseout globally, after reports of its continued use in other markets.

We also began to query three major e-commerce brands — Amazon, Target and Walmart — about their use of EPS foam packaging. Dell and Ikea have taken leadership roles in phasing out foam as a packing material.

In announcing its commitment to phase out EPS foam last year, Peter Larsson, packaging sustainability leader at IKEA, stated: "Why should we fill the air in our flat packs with something that is more dangerous than the air itself?" Ikea said its previous use equaled 7,400 trucks filled with foam, equivalent to more than half the volume of the Empire State Building. It now uses recyclable fiber-based packing materials.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stated in a 2013 letter to customers that no EPS foam is used in its frustration-free packaging, but that likely applies to a small amount of packaging relative to total packages shipped by the company. We are awaiting responses from all three companies about the extent of their use of EPS foam. Dell has pioneered the use of mushroom-based compostable molded cushions as an alternative to foam. The company says 72 percent of its flat-panel monitors and 65 percent of desktops are packaged in foam-free sustainably sourced materials.