Last week, Eco-Age’s sustainability intern Irene Soriano attended the Packaging Innovations 2019 show at London Olympia to explore the potential of sustainable packaging. She shares her key takeaways from the industry leaders and experts in attendance.
The 2019 Packaging Innovations and Luxury Packaging show celebrated it’s 10th anniversary this year – and the event’s programme was packed out with fascinating talks and panels. Here are a few key takeaways from the event.
1. Encouraging minimal packaging is key
During The Big Plastics Debate, experts across different industries and fields ranging from environmental policy advisors to university professors of materials and society, gathered to raise awareness on the environmental implications of packaging. They highlighted that while consumers tend to view packaging as free, its production comes at the expense of our planet. Packaging production not only demands a large availability of raw materials but also contributes to the rapid depletion of energy sources.
With the aim of minimising the environmental footprint of packaging, companies are increasingly switching from plastic to biodegradable and compostable solutions. While these efforts are key for reducing plastic waste and fossil feedstock use – which has a significant carbon impact – experts agreed that replacing one material with another will not be sufficient to minimise the impact of packaging. Instead, they call for reducing the overall production levels.
Embracing minimal packaging and “naked products” can contribute to reducing material use, energy consumption, and overall packaging waste, of which there were 86 million tonnes generated in the EU alone in 2016. In light of these facts, the industry has to find a way to offer functionality while stepping away from single-use and excessive packaging.
2. Recycling systems must be improved
Research suggests that only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled. Negative externalities arising from low recycling rates has motivated the creation of circular initiatives such as Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme, a project presented by Zero Waste Scotland. The scheme, which aims at increasing the quality and quantity of recycled materials, consists on charging consumers a small deposit of 20p when buying a drink in a single-use container and then giving the deposit back once costumers return the packaging for recycling.
While initiatives like this bring hope to the future of the circular economy, experts at last week’s event claimed that governments must make greater efforts to improve recycling systems. For instance, during the debate on the pros and cons of compostable packaging, members of organisations such as First Mile Ltd and the British Plastics Federation argued that current recycling systems in the UK are underdeveloped. They claimed that existing recycling facilities are not prepared to jointly recycle organic waste and biodegradable packaging and that therefore the use of compostables will not (yet!) solve the packaging waste problem unless governments commit to improving existing recycling systems.
3. Raising awareness on packaging recyclability and reusability is crucial
Keeping consumers informed about how to recycle or reuse a product at the end of its life is crucial; as mentioned by Caroline Frery from TerraCycle, communicating about recyclability is necessary in order to trigger a behavioural change. Companies should clearly label their products to maximise packaging recycling rates and promote circularity. In order to do so efficiently, Jonathan Ritson from Green Alliance encouraged companies to contact recycling and waste management facilities to get a real understanding on how their products would be recycled. Companies must understand what will happen to their product in the real world, not in an ideal scenario.
While improvements need to be made to minimise the environmental and social costs of packaging, a large number of companies and organisations are increasingly adopting solutions to advance towards this goal. From designing packaging made of agricultural waste to creating packaging-free shampoo bars, while brands aim at transforming and innovating the packaging industry, reducing the negative externalities of packaging will require the joint effort of companies and consumers.