By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Swedish retailer IKEA has announced it will phase out most plastic packaging by 2028 for existing products, and 2025, for new ones.
If that seems to be a lackluster commitment, with a slow deadline, it’s not. Currently, only 10% of existing IKEA packaging is made of plastic. So, the company has already implemented several steps to reduce the volume of plastics waste it generates, according to Treehugger, IKEA Assembles a Future Without Plastic Packaging:
“Phasing out plastic in consumer packaging is the next big step on our journey to make packaging solutions more sustainable and support the overall commitment to reduce plastic pollution and develop packaging from renewable and recycled materials,” IKEA Packaging & Identification Manager Erik Olsen said in a press release. “The shift will happen progressively over the coming years, and mainly be focusing on paper as it is both recyclable, renewable, and widely recycled across the world.”
IKEA, which every year spends over $1 billion on approximately 920,000 tons of packaging material, already has significantly decreased the amount of plastic used in its packaging. As of today, less than 10% of its packaging is made of plastic. To eliminate plastic completely, the company says, it will have to partner with product development teams and suppliers around the world. It might even have to engineer entirely new solutions.
“Ingenuity is part of the IKEA heritage, and packaging is by no means an exception in that regard,” said IKEA Packaging Development Leader Maja Kjellberg. “Shifting away from plastic in our consumer packaging solutions will doubtlessly be a challenging task in the coming years. With this movement we aim to spur packaging innovation and use our size and reach to have a positive impact on the wider industry beyond our supply chain.”
Ikea’s proactive source to eliminate plastic packaging is a welcome step, an implicit acknowledgement that relying on the recycling fairy to wave a magic wand and make waste magically disappear after it’s generated, isn’t working. Nonetheless, pending federal legislation continues to place undue reliance on such an approach.
There’s been some policy innovation at the state level, with both Maine and Oregon passing laws that place the onus on manufacturers to get rid of plastic packaging waste, according to the Conversation, Packaging generates a lot of waste – now Maine and Oregon want manufacturers to foot the bill for getting rid of it, by enacting statutes that establish extended produce responsibility (EPR) for waste disposal:
Most consumers don’t pay much attention to the packaging that their purchases come in, unless it’s hard to open or the item is really over-wrapped. But packaging accounts for about 28% of U.S. municipal solid waste. Only some 53% of it ends up in recycling bins, and even less is actually recycled: According to trade associations, at least 25% of materials collected for recycling in the U.S. are rejected and incinerated or sent to landfills instead.
Local governments across the U.S. handle waste management, funding it through taxes and user fees. Until 2018 the U.S. exported huge quantities of recyclable materials, primarily to China. Then China banned most foreign scrap imports. Other recipient countries like Vietnam followed suit, triggering waste disposal crises in wealthy nations.
Some U.S. states have laws that make manufacturers responsible for particularly hard-to-manage products, such as electronic waste, car batteries, mattresses and tires, when those goods reach the end of their useful lives.
Now, Maine and Oregon have enacted the first state laws making companies that create consumer packaging, such as cardboard cartons, plastic wrap and food containers, responsible for the recycling and disposal of those products, too. Maine’s law takes effect in mid-2024, and Oregon’s follows in mid-2025.
These measures shift waste management costs from customers and local municipalities to producers. As researchers who study waste and ways to reduce it, we are excited to see states moving to engage stakeholders, shift responsibility, spur innovation and challenge existing extractive practices.
This shift to dunning producers for creating plastic waste is welcome. Yet I think they still place undue reliance on recycling solutions, as a way to prod producers to be less wasteful:
Producers don’t always literally take back their goods under EPR schemes. Instead, they often make payments to an intermediary organization or agency, which uses the money to help cover the products’ recycling and disposal costs. Making producers cover these costs is intended to give them an incentive to redesign their products to be less wasteful.
Indeed, there remains considerable debate about how effective EPR statutes will be. Per Treehugger:
Whether EPR laws actually work is a subject of much debate. Going forward, however, a mix of voluntary and regulatory measures might be the best way to incentivize a low-waste economy.
Exactly. Even better would be strong regulatory measures that just say no to generating plastics in the first instance. Backed up by meaningful monitoring, not token schemes that can be captured and defanged by the industry. The Conversation article cautioned about such a problem with EPR schemes:
Critics argue that these [EPR] programs need strong regulation and monitoring to ensure that corporations take their responsibilities seriously – and especially to prevent them from passing costs on to consumers, which requires enforceable accountability measures. Observers also argue that producers can have too much influence within stewardship organizations, which they warn may undermine enforcement or the credibility of the law.
By pledging to phase out plastics packaging entirely, IKEA is demonstrating that our current use of plastics packaging is simply not necessary. IKEA’s effort helps refocus the plastics waste management debate away from how plastics producers have framed it: as a problem That can be solved by recycling. But that’s simply not true. And the recycling approach was already showing itself to be inadequate long before China closed its borders to plastics waste imports and the pandemic shuttered (or at minimum, temporarily suspended) many municipal recycling efforts.
Yet plastics pushers continue to tout recycling for a couple of reasons. Emphasizing recycling acknowledges the plastics problem, but absolves plastics makers from responsibility for the clean-up. Instead, it shifts that burden to you and me, who must sort through our rubbish to separate out material before it reaches our landfills. It’s a form of waste management theater – similar to the security theater that takes place at airports – making us feel we’re doing something. Rather than thinking hard about what the best policy would be.
A far, far better solution would be not to generate so much plastic in the first instance. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about disposing of the waste. Or mull the consequences of microplastics finding their way to formerly pristine environments and other places no sane person would want them to be.
Further, creating plastic isn’t a cost-free process nor is it by any means carbon-neutral. One recent report highlighted that plastics are currently on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030, making them the new coal just as the world is getting around to slowing its reliance on the old coal (see my November post, The New Coal: Pushing Plastics Worsens Climate Change). Not making so much of the stuff altogether is the only way to reduce its overall carbon footprint.
Yes We Can
IKEA has a history of environmental responsibility. Treehugger reports:
The Swedish retailer has been a champion of the environment for years. In 2018, for instance, it announced plans to use only renewable and recycled materials in its products by 2030 and to complete all last-mile deliveries via electric vehicle by 2025. As of 2020, it no longer uses single-use plastics in its stores or restaurants. And earlier this year it pledged to sell solar panels and renewable energy to customers in all of its markets within the next four years.
If IKEA can see its way to eliminating all plastics packaging by 2028, other companies should be able to do so, too. And perhaps, if our Congresscritters and various state legislators were to get serious about curbing our plastics addiction, they could impose more aggressive universal bans of low hanging fruit – single use plastics, for starters – followed by eliminating all plastics packaging – at least in its present, environmentally harmful form. At the same time, thinking about adopting circular economy principles for all products is a foreseeable next step – a path the European Union has already blazed. But I’ll leave further discussion of that concept to a future post.