What is the solution?
Organisations can significantly reduce the impact of packaging by reducing (single-use) packaging to the minimum and by eliminating problematic materials. Actions should be prioritised and focused on key materials and key items.
Limiting the amount of plastic used is in fact a key lever to effectively tackle plastic leakage into the environment, notably in areas with limited waste management and recycling infrastructure. Organisations should also eliminate packaging material that may pose a risk to human health or the environment, that is not recyclable, or detrimental to the recycling or composting system.
In a business-as-ususal scenario, roughly 12,000 million tonnes of plastic waste will be accumulated in the natural environment by 2050 (4)
#1 Prioritise items
Identify and prioritise items for which (plastic) packaging can be eliminated or reduced.
#2 Eliminate unnecessary packaging
Identify items for which packaging can be removed. For example, eliminating packaging of individual items in a kit when possible.
#3 Reduce packaging
Ensure that packaging is not oversized and is adapted to the size of the content. Reduce the thickness of packaging when possible.
#4 Eliminate problematic materials
Eliminate problematic materials, such as:
- Multi-material packaging
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride), including PVDC (polyvinylidene chloride)
- PS (polystyrene), including EPS (expanded polystyrene)
These materials are considered problematic as they either contain hazardous chemicals or hinder or disrupt the recyclability or compostability of other items. (6)
#5 Limit the use of dyes, pigments and inks
Dyes, pigments and inks impact the recyclability and biodegradability of packaging. Avoid them wherever possible or look for alternatives, such as using brown instead of bleached cardboard.
#6 Eliminate single-use plastic food packaging
Eliminate single-use plastic food packaging (food container, water bottles, cutlery, stirrers, etc.) from office spaces and the canteen (see also factsheet eco-friendly practices at the office for further information).
- Cost savings
- Reduced risk of safety hazards in the production and handling of plastic packaging by eliminating certain problematic materials
- Making reduction of plastic packaging a strategic issue
- Designating a responsible person or department to implement the plastic packaging strategy
- If sufficient data is available, setting a plastic packaging reduction goal
- Involving staff from the quality and procurement department
Prerequisites & specificities
- Overview of type of packaging and the materials used
- Availability of alternative materials with similar characteristics when eliminating problematic materials
- Quality issues or damage to items or food if not properly implemented
Point of attention
Definition of “problematic or unnecessary”
Plastic packaging items, components, or materials where consumption could be avoided through elimination, reuse or replacement and items that, post-consumption, commonly do not enter the recycling and/or composting systems, or where they do, are detrimental to the recycling or composting system due to their format, composition, or size. (7)
FCDO: Reducing single-use plastic packaging of Non-food items
The UK Foreign: Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) implemented a project to reduce single-use plastic packaging in the distribution of non-food items (NFIs). Six NFIs that can be manufactured and distributed free from single-use plastic without compromising the quality of the items were identified: Solar lights, kitchen sets, buckets, fixing kits for shelter and family tents can now be sourced without single-use plastic packaging. (8) (9)
UNICEF: Distributing long lasting insecticidal nets (LLIN) in bulk
Long-lasting insecticidal nets are one of the two main tools for malaria prevention and control and one of core relief items used by UNICEF. UNICEF reduced plastic waste in long-lasting insecticidal net deliveries by promoting bulk packaging as an alternative to individual packaging. As a direct result of the active guidance for bulk packing for LLINs, from 2021 to 2022, UNICEF avoided sending 11.5 million single-use plastic bags, while generating US$317,000 savings in LLINs procurement.(10)
Shelter Box/Joint Iniative, Shelterbox’s Success in Eliminating Single Use Plastic
This case study illustrates how a relatively small organization with little purchasing power has managed to make a significant reduction to its packaging. It documents how, because of sustainable packaging practices, ShelterBox avoided the use of 173,396 pieces of plastic in 2021. (11)
World Food Programme: Plastic Free E-Vouchers Shops
Encouraged by the enforcement of plastic bans by the government of Bangladesh, as well as the WFP’s own plan to phase out 90% of single-use plastic by 2O26, the WFP decided to step up efforts to reduce its environmental footprint and to explore alternatives to SUP in Cox’s Bazar. (12)
ICRC: Packaging specifications
The ICRC published standard sustainability requirements for packaging. The criteria focus on the elimination of unnecessary packaging and individual product packaging, as well as the choice of materials. (13)
Reduction of problematic materials
86% of Global Commitment signatories with PVC in their portfolio and 64% with PS in their portfolio report they have eliminated, or plan to eliminate, PVC and PS respectively. The Global Commitment, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, brings together more than 500 organisations to change how we produce, use and reuse plastics. (14)
Tools and good practices
Joint Initiative on Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management
The initiative convenes humanitarian actors from the UN system, NGOs, donors and academics to find and implement solutions for the packaging waste challenge of the humanitarian sectorRead here
U.S. Plastics Pact's Problematic and Unnecessary Materials List
The U.S. Plastics Pact put together a list of 11 problematic and unnecessary materials. U.S. Plastics Pact members committed to eliminate these materials by 2025Read here
US Plastics Pact, Decision Tree
A decision tree for eliminating unnecessary or problematic plastic packagingRead here
Ellen MacArthur Foundation Learning Hub
A series of learning tools to increase the understanding of plastic pollution, a circular economy for plastic and potential solutions to the problemRead here
To go further
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action, 2017.
The report provides a wealth of information related to the global plastics challenge. It makes the case for a circular economy for plastics and outlines priority solutionsRead here
U.S. Plastics Pact, Problematic and Unnecessary Materials Report, 2022
This short report provides an overview of the 11 identified materials to be eliminated by 2025 by the U.S. Plastics PactRead here
(1) UN Environment Programme, “Plastic recycling: an underperforming sector ripe for a remake”, 2019. Read here.
(2) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action, 2017. Read here.
(3) R. Geyer, J. R. Jambeck, K. L. Law, Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, Volume 3, Issue 7, 2017. Read here.
(4) R. Geyer, J. R. Jambeck, K. L. Law, Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, Volume 3, Issue 7, 2017. Read here.
(5) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action, 2017. Read here.
(6) A full list of problematic materials is available on the website of the U.S. Plastics Pact. Read here.
(7) U.S. Plastics Pact. Read here.
(8) Palladium, Palladium Leads the Way on Cutting Polluting Plastics from Humanitarian Response Work, 2022. Read here.
(9) Logistics cluster, HSOT recommendations for reduction of plastic packaging, 2022. Read here.
(10) ShelterBox and the Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management, “Managing Packaging Waste Sustainably: Lessons from Humanitarian Organizations”, 2022. Read here.
(11) Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management, “Managing Packaging Waste Sustainably: Lessons from Humanitarian Organizations – Plastic-free e-voucher shops in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: The World Food Programme’s experience.” Read here.
(12) ICRC, Information sheet: Packaging, 2020. Read here.
(13) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Global Commitment. Read here.
Cover photo © Roberta Errani/Unsplash.