Sustainable packaging: Is it truly achievable?

Written by: RWW | Published:

While consumers are keen for brands and supermarkets to use environmentally-friendly packaging, it begs the question: What exactly is sustainable packaging? Should the term refer to a material that can be recycled or does it go deeper than that? Freelance writer David Burrows investigates.

Back in June 2012, PricewaterhouseCoopers published a report called Sustainable packaging: myth or reality. It was the third in a series of surveys (following others in 2008 and 2010) carried out among a controlled group of NGOs, fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs) suppliers, packaging producers and retailers. PWC concluded that sustainable packaging was “no longer relevant” as a term with the debate over good versus bag packaging having “moved on”.  

The report reads: “The idea that anyone from the key stakeholder groups can come up with a single meaningful definition of sustainable packaging is largely proving to be a red herring and has been consigned to history. The reality is that it has been substituted with a more balanced view of efficient packaging.”

The findings were welcomed. 

Adam Read, practice director for waste management at consultants Ricardo-AEA, said the findings “captured the debate and mood very well”. 

Dick Searle, chief executive at the Packaging Federation, breathed a sigh of relief. “We’ve been saying it forever [but] I’m pleased that the general consensus is that the phrase ‘sustainable packaging’ is meaningless and that packaging has a role to play in the sustainability of supply chains,” he told RWW.

But in June this year the debate returned following research published by Forum for the Future, an environmental NGO, and commissioned by Novelis, a supplier of rolled aluminium products and recycler of aluminium cans. 

Switch to greener packaging?

A survey of 3,000 consumers across the UK, US and Poland found that 62% of respondents would “feel negatively towards a company that didn’t use the most environmentally friendly packaging available”. 

Other findings included: 75% agree that companies should reduce the amount of new raw materials used in creating packaging; 56% would switch brands if one had a significantly better environmental impact than the other; and 82% of people agree that companies should increase the amount of recycled material in the packaging. 

The recent campaigning against sweet company Mondelez provides a case in point. At the recent annual meeting investors representing $11.8bn (£6.9bn) worth of shares demanded that the company behind Oreo, Cadbury and Milka chocolate switches to greener packaging. 

The proposal received 28.4% shareholder support, proving that “a significant number of investors recognise the risk to Mondelez’s brand posed by its throwaway packaging,” says Conrad McKeeron from the advocacy organisation behind the move.

Indeed, Forum for the Future’s researchers concluded that: “Sustainability increases brand preference”. What’s more, they think that sustainable packaging will become a “hygiene factor” for companies, which will be fuelled by increased transparency and higher consumer expectations of the sustainability of the products they buy. This finding caught the eye, so does it mean that sustainable packaging has surged up the priority list?

This isn’t the first piece of research showing that consumers care about the packs their products come in. 

A study by Western Pulp, for example, showed that 64% believe that packaging should consist of environmentally friendly materials. However, the results need to be taken with a pinch of salt given that it is hard not to lead the respondent. It is also easy to oversimplify, as Nicola Jenkin, associate director at consultants Anthesis, explains.

“Consumers will often define ‘sustainable’ packaging through one issue - such as recyclability and may not necessarily interpret elements such as optimal pack design [for example getting more to fit on a pallet], increased recycled content or FSC-certified sources as sustainable. This may be down to consumers not understanding what this means, or not physically being able to see this change. Even though evidence may suggest that sustainable packaging is important to consumers, there has been [too much] focus on the choice of packaging itself - its sustainability credentials and recyclability.”

Environmental saviour or sinner?

This has been a common headache for those trying to promote the benefits of packaging as environmental saviour rather than sinner. 

“Recycling of packaging is one of the two main ways that companies seek to communicate its sustainability, the other being source reduction,” says Richard Inns from packaging specialists, the PEC Partnership. 

“Recycling is a key part of sustainable sourcing, of that there is no doubt. The pity is that, when waste reduction is such a key goal for consumers, industry and government alike, the huge role of packaging in preventing waste is so little communicated.”

Readers of RWW are no doubt aware of the small environmental footprint of packaging, compared to the product it houses but are consumers? 

Research by WRAP shows that 43% of shoppers think the main role for packaging is to protect food before it gets to the shop; 37% believe it’s protection for in the home. 

WRAP has also made the following statement: “Food is a valuable resource and yet UK households throw away seven million tonnes every year. More than 4.2 million tonnes of this could have been eaten. Optimising packaging has been a great success and will continue, but there are limited opportunities to reduce it further without risking increased product wastage. Now the focus is on improving design to optimise recycled content, improving recyclability and helping to reduce food waste.”

Sweet spot

Quentin Clark is head of sustainability at Waitrose. He says that packaging is one of the biggest touchpoints - the time a customer comes into contact with a brand or supermarket. The challenge is therefore “finding the sweet spot between technical performance and minimisation”. Those from the packaging sector tend to agree. 

Tony Foster, sales and marketing director at the UK packaging division for DS Smith, says: “Ensuring the packaging fulfils its primary purpose is usually the most important factor, and beyond that there will be a judgement made about the materials used and what it says about the retailer. For example, everything we do with corrugated is 100% recyclable and this will reflect well on the retailer and with environmentally aware sections of the shopping public.”

Foster believes that consumers “will be influenced by the packaging they see and this will also affect their perception of the brand and in turn the retailer”. Indeed, consumers tend to associate what’s on the shelf with the overall image of the retailer and one of the big goals is to make what’s on offer recyclable. 

This is where they can stray into ‘greenwash’, as Jenkin at Anthesis explains. “A simple but very good example of where greenwashing can occur is on recycling messaging. It is quite common for packaging to be promoted as ‘100% recyclable’, but what does this mean? In essence, everything can be collected for recycling, but what happens to it when it is reprocessed?”

Retailers and local authorities are not always on the same page. 

Research by Marks & Spencer shows that its customers “find it frustrating” when packaging is not compliant with local kerbside services. 

Clark at Waitrose explains the chicken and egg situation that often arises: “As we produce recyclable materials we need local authorities to be able to recycle them.” 

In the past, there have been some public-private disagreements, not least when Del Monte introduced individually wrapped bananas. “The man from Del Monte should say no,” the Local Government Association told the Daily Mail, arguing that it would increase household waste. 

However, the plastic was recyclable and the little bags included controlled ripening agents that extended the shelf-life of the fruit by up to six days. That was a few years ago. 

There are signs that councils and retailers are now working together on solutions. An in-market trial was recently launched to increase the recycling of black trays. 

These are a notoriously difficult material to separate from other plastics: the near infra-red optical sorting equipment can’t detect the black colour. 

WRAP, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Biffa and the Kent Waste Resource Partnership are among those involved in tests to identify a new type of black tray using a colourant that the sorting machines can spot. “This is a fantastic opportunity … to make our customers’ lives easier,” says Sainsbury’s own brand packaging technologist Debbie Parry. 

In the confusing world of sustainable packaging, this is the Holy Grail.

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