Packaging redesign could cut global plastics demand by 20% by 2050

Plastic packaging redesign, which includes elimination, substitution and reuse, could reduce global plastic-packaging demand in 2050 from 190 MM tonnes to 150 MM tonnes, according to a new analysis from Wood Mackenzie’s Cross-Polymer Demand Model. This represents a decrease of 20% in 2050 and would save as much as 425 MM tonnes of plastic from entering the wastestream in the forecasted period. This is the equivalent of more than 20 TRILLION plastic bottles and takeaway containers.

As noted in Wood Mackenzie’s report, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used in water bottles, is the polymer most at risk from packaging redesign because single-use drinks bottles can easily be displaced by reuseable alternatives.

Timur Zilbershteyn, Wood Mackenzie Principal Analyst, says, “One lever of plastic-packaging redesign currently gaining a significant amount of consumer and brand attention is reuse. Unlike elimination efforts, reuse models do not mean that packaging materials disappear. Instead, the selection of materials and the durability of end-use products change. 

“Reuse models are commonly used in industrial settings but are fairly immature in most consumer markets. Current examples in the industry include Unilever’s largest refill trial in Europe and SodaStream’s home soda water machines.

“With consumers pushing companies to improve their environmental credentials and governments committing to climate goals by mid-decade, there is currently a lot of energy going into exploring different reuse business models within the plastic packaging industry.”

Wood Mackenzie’s chemicals researchers ran a scenario to assess which plastic packaging applications could be most impacted by a reuse business model. The scenario assumes that rigid applications are more exposed to reuse displacement than flexible packaging, with bottles and thin-wall plastic containers likely to be at the forefront of any change.

Additionally, reuse models are likely to see higher levels of adoption in high-income countries where the necessary infrastructure is more likely to already be in place. If current levels of interest in reuse models are maintained and technological, economic and regulatory trends align, Wood Mackenzie says that 5% of global plastic-packaging demand could be displaced in 2040 versus its base forecast, rising to 12% in high-income countries.

Zilbershteyn adds, “As the world looks for alternatives to single-use plastic items, reuse models will become a key instrument in the toolkit of responses that packaging companies can choose from. Given the higher-exposure of rigid applications, our scenario reveals that PET, polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS) are the polymers that will be most impacted by a rise in reuse. 

"For PET and especially PP, the decrease in shorter duration packaging demand is partially offset by the demand for reusable packaging. To increase durability, this packaging will generally have thicker walls and therefore require more polymer per unit. However, the net impact is negative for polymer demand, even accounting for the additional polymer required for these applications."

As noted in the Wood Mackenzie report, current experimentation is mostly – though not exclusively – focused in high-income economies, driven by consumer concerns, lower price sensitivity and regulatory trends. Commercialization of these models is almost certainly expected to scale in these markets first.

Reuse models require value chains to reorganize in order to provide consumers with cost effective, sustainable and – crucially – convenient packaging solutions. Logistics, technology, product design and communications all need to come together to secure market share for reuse models.