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Sustainable packaging is not ‘business as usual’

two people lecturing to audience

Does the packaging industry fully understand its role in fighting the climate crisis with sustainable packaging? Not if my recent trip to the country’s biggest specialist trade exhibition, Packaging Innovations, is anything to go by. Far too many exhibitors still seemed to think that slapping the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘recyclable’ on their stand graphics meant they could continue with business as usual.

Especially when that business was the supply of fossil-fuel derived plastics.

“We’re moving from PS, which is definitely single use, to PP and PET which are recyclable,” claimed one sales rep. The Coca Cola definition of single use was catching on, and it wasn’t pretty.

Yet, amidst the gloom and banality, there were beacons of hope.

It seems to me that mature exhibitors and speakers had grasped two key points.

  1. Fighting climate change requires brands, packer fillers and packaging manufacturers to take radical steps. Such steps demand commitment, time and significant investment.
  2. None of the steps taken so far – giant strides though they are in some cases – are perfect. There is still a long way to go and the most effective changes, such as refillable glass loops, require government and industry leadership. No one brand can do that on its own.

Steps forward in sustainable packaging

We may not yet be able to eliminate plastic packaging entirely, but several initiatives indicated a positive direction of travel for sustainable packaging. These are just a few of the products I spotted.

  • Carlsberg’s packaging rationalisation and fierce reduction targets as shown by the Snap Pack
  • AR Packaging’s investment in developing sealable, carton-based trays – eliminating the black plastic tray for ever
  • Lactips’ development of bio-sourced Thermoplast pellets – using waste from the dairy industry. This has obvious limitations regarding lactose-intolerant consumers and the growing vegan movement, but could replace fossil-fuel plastics in many sachet and film applications
  • Mercian Labels’ use of fossil-free wood-based film
  • Sempak – the recyclable stand-up conical pouch from Monaco’s Semco

The products themselves, of course, only go so far. Questions remain.

  1. How much energy is needed to create and recover the new materials compared to what they replace? How renewable is that energy in each case?
  2. As materials proliferate, are simple, clear, effective collection systems in place to recover the material for reuse and recycling? Pity the poor consumer forced to decide whether that bioplastic should be recycled or composted, whether that board tray has too thick a film liner to be recycled with card and paper; how much food residue is too much for recycling and whether washing it off will render the material worthless?

Greater collaboration required

The solution to the sustainable packaging question will only be found through true collaboration between across and through supply chains, regulatory and consumer domains. Most radically, it will involve competitors pooling resources and attitudes, particularly at the brand level. The other pre-eminent slogan at Packaging Innovations was to highlight that using a particular pack would give the buying brand a ‘competitive edge’.

That is back to front logic. It’s often said that companies should not put marketing before purpose. As far as the fundamentals of sustainable packaging are concerned, the only approach that works is not the edge, but the level playing field. When everyone gets to play, everyone gets to benefit from the accepted result. Greater sustainability is likely to lead to some reductions in packaging choice.

And that really isn’t business as usual.

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