Much more focus must “urgently” go to eliminating single-use packaging such as polybags in the apparel sector, according to a new report from The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme.

It revealed that, across all industries, brands and retailers who signed up to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, launched three years ago, have collectively reduced their consumption of virgin plastic in packaging for the second year running.

That means their use of virgin plastic appears to have peaked in 2021 and is set to fall by almost 20% by 2025.

In the apparel sector, all six signatories saw a reduction in their use of virgin plastic packaging over the last year – on average a decrease of 31% – although this was partly driven by Covid-19 reducing sales.

However, the trend is set to continue with all apparel signatories committing to reduce their use of virgin plastic in packaging – on average by 46% – by 2025.

Half of the group made progress on increasing their use of post-consumer recycled content in the garment supply chain, although all six faced a “significant challenge” on recyclability.

For the three out of the six that increased their proportion of post-consumer recycled content, the growth was significant – an average of 20 percentage points.

Signatories have focused on increasing recycled content in hangers and flexible packaging, with several partnering with waste management companies to collect and recycle hangers and polybags.

Recyclability of packaging for apparel signatories remains a challenge: an average of 63% of their plastic packaging is non-recyclable, including PS hangers and consumer-facing flexible packaging such as e-commerce bags and carrier bags.

Overall, virgin plastic reduction has largely been driven by recycling, according to the report, but that is not enough to solve plastic pollution, meaning “much more focus must urgently go to eliminating single-use packaging”.

Setting a reduction target became mandatory in 2021 for all the Global Commitment’s 63 brand and retail signatories who are responsible for just over 20% of global plastics packaging.

However, the report stressed that switching from virgin plastic to recycled plastic was only one part of the solution as it did not address the total amount of plastic packaging on the market.

“There is very little evidence of ambitious efforts to reduce the need for single-use packaging in the first place,” it said. “Less than 2% of signatories’ plastic packaging is reusable, and for more than half of all signatories, this is 0%.”

There is particular pressure on the clothing industry, including garment decoration, where plastic is being used across the supply chain, from polybags in factories to packaging for fulfilling online orders.

Some decorators and suppliers are tackling this by using recycled plastic packaging and sustainable paper-based alternatives wherever possible. (Images magazine switched from plastic to paper wrappers for its monthly mail-out in 2019.)

According to the report, apparel signatories have focused on substituting plastic with paper, rather than avoiding single-use packaging to begin with.

Apparel signatories have focused on eliminating non-recyclable plastic packaging – especially hangers, plastic carrier bags and polybags – mostly by switching to paper alternatives and creating closed-loop systems to collect and recycle their business-to-business hangers or polybags.

However, few signatories reported making more fundamental changes to avoid the need for single-use packaging to begin with. Two out of six launched reuse pilots over the reporting period.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Programme added that there was “unprecedented momentum” behind calls for a global agreement on plastic pollution.

Over 80 leading businesses and 119 national governments have called for a global agreement to tackle plastic pollution, and more than two million people have signed a public petition in support.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, founder and chair of trustees of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said: “We won’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution; eliminating single-use packaging is a vital part of the solution.

“Alarmingly, our report shows little investment in this. We need much more urgent focus on upstream innovation to rethink how to deliver products without packaging or by using reusable packaging.

“This doesn’t just allow us to design out waste, it also means we can design out carbon emissions whilst creating new opportunities for business.

“Shifting just 20% of plastic packaging from single-use to reuse is an opportunity estimated to be worth US$10 billion [£7.5 billion].”