Gaëlle Nuttall works as Plastic Packaging & Environmental Sustainability Manager for Nestlé Waters. When asking our question about plastic recycling around the world, many people said that recycling should be more promoted, be it in schools or in our daily lives. We showed these testimonies to Gaëlle and that's how our conversation started.
20QAW: What is your first reaction to these testimonies?
Gaëlle Nuttall: I’m rather surprised that, here, roles are limited to individuals and governments, whereas in my view we should all be involved in recycling. Industries aren’t mentioned here, and I believe we also have a role to play as bottle-producing companies.
20QAW: What does it mean to recycle:
G.N.: Recycling means giving the product a second life and seeing the plastic bottle not as a waste but as a resource. You can reuse an empty bottle by washing and cutting it to create new products from it. This is not only true for PET bottles but also for other products such as papers, glass jars etc.
The goal is to reach sufficient recycling quality to be able to use recycled packaging in the food industry. The cleaner the recycling flow is, with bottles sorted and separated from other waste, the better we can reuse them through a circular process to create new bottles.
Currently only one in two bottles is collected to be recycled. The reason is that we have inefficient infrastructures and collection systems.
20QAW: Why is such a little amount of plastic actually recycled?
G.N.: You have very different contexts, be it in the United States, in Europe or in the rest of the world for example. Currently only one in two bottles is collected to be recycled. It’s very important to understand the difference between collected and recycled, as some plastics are collected to be incinerated for energy generation, while some others are indeed recycled. The reason behind this is that we have very inefficient infrastructures and collection systems.
In Europe, a regulation is being implemented that stipulates that by 2029, 90% of PET beverage bottles must be collected to be recycled. At the European level, we’re thus collaborating with governments and the entire industry to figure out what systems are best suited to this collection. It might for instance be interesting to implement a deposit system like in Norway or or Extended Producer Responsibility like in Belgium or an hybrid one like Switzerland. There are many different systems and solutions around the world.
Another context worth noting is the United States, where collection is not managed nationally but at the state level, and each state has different regulations. In some states, citizens don’t even have access to collection points. This represents a massive challenge. There we have invested six million USD in the Closed Loop Fund, which contributes to the implementation of collection infrastructures.
Finally, developing countries are yet another context where bottle collection is mainly handled informally by waste pickers who handpick bottles on beaches and on the streets to receive a financial compensation. PET, the main material of plastic bottles, is indeed highly valuable compared to other materials. However, this is a very informal and uncontrolled form of collection, and this profession isn’t recognised by governments. Our ambition is to work with these countries to help this profession get the recognition it deserves and become official, with a genuine framework regarding human rights and work safety.
Brands have a responsibility to use their packaging, and communication platforms to convey clear recycling messages
20QAW: Who is in charge of encouraging people to recycle?
G.N.: I believe we all have a role to play. As an industrial company we have a role to play with NGOs. Take Citeo in France for instance, where we are member. One of their actions is to provide recycling guidelines, as it is essential for the public to know what goes in each bin, and why toencourage consumers to have waste sorting reflexes. For us, the better people sort plastic bottles, the better we can reuse them into new bottles. So we work with such NGOs to foster education programs.
As brand owners, every company also has a role to play through their products as theyare seen and bought by everyone. Brands have a responsibility to use their packaging, and communication platforms to convey clear recycling messages. The issue currently is that messages can differ from one country to another; therefore message standardisation is a concern and we are working on it.
Schools, and education in general, also have a responsibility towards the citizens of tomorrow by providing them with community values about how important it is not to pollute our planet.
Finally, governments must also be involved, as it is their responsibility to create regulations that are sufficiently clear to provide a framework for citizens and for all actors of the recycling value chain.
20QAW: How far can recycling be the solution to plastic waste?
G.N.: If we look at Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s three principles of the new plastic economy:
- The first pillar focuses on creating an effective after-use plastic economy
- The second on the reduction of plastic leakage into the environment
- The third on reducing the use of fossil resources to make plastic
Collection and recycling prevent plastics from leaking into nature thanks to upstream collection systems. Another important aspect is to research new materials to ensure we reduce our reliance on fossil resources. For instance, there are bioplastics, which are made from renewable resources. In PET, there are two main molecules, two monomers, and through the Naturall Bottle Alliance, we’ve found a way to manufacture these monomers from bio-based materials, meaning we wouldn’t depend on fossil resources to create plastics. In a sense this is the new generation of plastics. But this doesn’t solve the collection issue. Implementing these new materials would solve the third pillar of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s plastic economy, but it won’t provide an answer for the second pillar. So there isn’t a single solution to all plastics challenges, and we need to work on all of these pillars to create a circular economy of plastic.
Progress is inevitable in this fast-changing field. Every week, new innovations come to light and awareness grows
20QAW: How do you imagine the future of water containers in a hundred years?
G.N.: I think water containers will use widely different materials relying on a fully circular economy, whether it is PET or another material. In a hundred years, there probably won’t be a single solution but many, relying on 100% recyclable materials in a closed-loop economy or new water delivery systems. What is very encouraging is that we’re going forward at a very fast pace. There are teams, not just internally but also in the civil and scientific communities, working and innovating in terms of containers, not only for plastics but for any packaging type or shape. Progress is inevitable in this fast-changing field. Every week, new innovations come to light and awareness grows, and that’s what’s so amazing as we are forced to push forward. At this pace, in 100 years, we can only dream of what will be possible!
we’re working with our competitors and the whole industry to implement collection systems and ensure that these plastics are collected and recycled.
20QAW: As a major water bottling company, what’s your position on plastic?
G.N.: We do indeed produce plastic bottles, using recyclable materials. However, this plastic needs to be recycled, which is why we’re working with our competitors and the whole industry to implement collection systems and ensure that these plastics are collected and recycled.
Why are we still using plastic bottles? Firstly, because it is recyclable. Secondly because plastic has the smallest ecological footprint compared to other materials in terms of life cycle assessment when there is more than 200 kilometres between the place where it is manufactured and the place where it is used. On average at Nestlé Waters, this distance is 450 kilometres. However, this lifecycle analysis doesn’t consider ocean and ecosystem pollution. This is where we absolutely have a responsibility to implement these collection systems, helping governments and local authorities to close the loop as to not contribute to plastic pollution.