Eliminate unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging

  • Packaging
  • Non-food items
  • Aid
  • Procurement

The demand for plastic packaging is projected to double over the next 20 years. Aid organisations often work in areas of intervention with limited waste management and recycling infrastructure, making the case for reducing unnecessary packaging even more pertinent.

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. Problematic plastic packaging refers to material that is hazardous, not recyclable, or detrimental to the recycling or composting system, and therefore to be avoided.

 

 

 

 

Key Facts

26%

of the total volume of plastics used is packaging (1)

60%

of all plastics ever produced has been discarded in landfills or in the natural environment (2)

12,000 million tonnes

In a business-as-ususal scenario, roughly 12,000 million tonnes of plastic waste will be accumulated in the natural environment by 2050 (3)

8 million tonnes

of plastics leak into the ocean every year equivalent to the contents of one garbage truck dumped into the ocean every minute (4)

Key actions

  • #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. (5)

  • #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.

  • #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).

To consider

  • Potential co-benefits

    • Cost savings
    • Reduced risk of safety hazards in the production and handling of plastic packaging by eliminating certain problematic materials
  • Success conditions

    • 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
  • Potential risks

    • Quality issues or damage to items or food if not properly implemented
© Jasmin Sesser/ Unsplash

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. (6)

Success stories

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. (7) (8)

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. (9)

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. (10)

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 sector

    Read 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 2025

    Read here
  • US Plastics Pact, Decision Tree

    A decision tree for eliminating unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging

    Read 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 problem

    Read 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 solutions

    Read 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 Pact

    Read here

Sources

(1) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action, 2017. Read here.

(2) 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.

(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) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action, 2017. Read here.

(5) A full list of problematic materials is available on the website of the U.S. Plastics Pact. Read here.

(6) U.S. Plastics Pact. Read here.

(7) Palladium, Palladium Leads the Way on Cutting Polluting Plastics from Humanitarian Response Work, 2022. Read here.

(8) Logistics cluster, HSOT recommendations for reduction of plastic packaging, 2022. Read here.

(9) ICRC, Information sheet: Packaging, 2020. Read here.

(10) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Global Commitment. Read here.

 

Cover photo © Roberta Errani/Unsplash.