Sustainability was a common theme across many of the companies showing at this year’s Packaging Innovations fair in Birmingham. Our sustainability consultant Fiona Cartmel attended to discover the latest industry developments and to see where packaging conversations are taking us.
Packaging is a complex topic, with queries of recyclability often at the forefront of the debate. As customers become increasingly aware of the lifecycle of waste, the sustainability of a business’ packaging is a clear and direct message in which it can communicate its commitment to the planet. Though it’s never as simple as prioritising brown cardboard boxes, multiple packaging products are now being used during different stages of the supply chain: customer-facing shipping boxes, poly bags protecting garments in shipping, the packaging used to hold the final product, for instance.
As highlighted at the Packaging Innovations showcase in Birmingham, the industry is beginning to consider a more sustainable system. Focusing on supply chains and sustainable solutions, the event boasted everything from low impact content, like FSC paper, to circular systems with suppliers in which packaging waste is collected from brands post-consumer. Here is what we learnt.
Don’t forget the Waste Hierarchy
In a conversation around lowering the negative environmental impacts of packaging, the waste hierarchy is key. In its essence, the model suggests practices that should be prioritised over disposal, with prevention being the best outcome. This would mean reducing and eliminating all unnecessary packaging, an essential practice to creating a more sustainable system. Next on the hierarchy is preparing for re-use and refill, then recycling and other recovery. Quite simply, if you can’t reuse it then dispose of it correctly, ideally recovering the materials through recycling. If this isn’t possible, other means of recovery should be used, for example incineration for energy generation or composting. Then, as the very last resort, it should go to landfill.
Eliminate single-use packaging, not single-use plastics
Reusable packaging was perhaps the biggest conversation within the event, whether through in store refillable systems or take-back schemes. This then could result in a reduction of raw materials being used over all and could lower the volume of waste being produced. While this could significantly benefit the planet, the common comment alongside this was the importance placed on consumers to change and adapt with the industry. The environmental performance of reusable packaging entirely depends on consumers. The reusable packaging would need to be used in the intended way in order to feel the positive impacts, requiring customer education to reduce loss, breakages or the hoarding of packaging products.
Creating consumer trust
While there is customer demand for sustainable packaging, it needs to be in greater numbers. According to the European Consumer Packaging Perceptions Study (2018), as many as 90% of shoppers in seven European countries want on-pack information about packaging sustainability. Additionally, 70% of consumers across 13 countries feel that sustainability claims should be independently certified, according to 2017 Global Consumer Insights, conducted by Globescan on behalf of FSC International. Customers want companies to be able to verify claims, which they can do through third party assurance systems. This gives customers confidence in what brands are saying, and equally protects the reputation of the brand.
The confusing nature of logos
Despite calls for third party approval, logos on packaging can be very confusing. Offering information on materiality, how to dispose, and sustainability initiatives, such logos can help consumers to navigate waste. Perhaps one of the most important topics of conversation at the event was the need to properly display disposal information on packaging, making it simple and understandable for consumers through consistent and easy to understand messaging. For recycling, this could be through the voluntary body On Product Recycling Label’s (OPRL) “Recycle” and “Don’t Recycle” messaging for U.K. brands.
Policy and government action is key in driving change
Over the course of the day, the feeling of urgency and the need for action within packaging was prevalent. Fortunately, it appears as though companies are aware of this importance, and are acting. Brands are signing up to the UK Plastic Pact, with companies like Waitrose trialing a refillable scheme in some of its stores. But, in order to speed up change and to really drive the industry forward, governments need to level the playing field. Large corporations are hesitant to be first in trialing a new system. If the government were to apply pressure and potentially introduce penalties for those not taking action, then this really could spur on the industry.
To make these policies and government initiatives meaningful, brands and consumers must be able to have their say, steering the government to put in place systems that force the industry to take real steps. For brands wanting to find out more about the impact of the packaging they are using, there are a variety of tools available: Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) and Cradle to Cradle, both giving companies an overview of their impacts, from the raw materials used to create them, to their end of life.