INCPEN chief executive Paul Vanston: 'There has been a very large public wind of change'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
INCPEN chief executive Paul Vanston. Photography by Wilde Fry

As the public, big business and government turn their backs on plastic and packaging, there would be reason to believe the packaging sector is hiding in the shadows, scared of widespread angry condemnation.

But for Paul Vanston, chief executive of INCPEN (the industry council for packaging and the environment), the current climate represents a perfect opportunity to move the sector forward.

The past 12 months have been nothing other than monumental for environmental issues. Thanks to the sterling efforts of high-profile media campaigns such as Sky’s Ocean Rescue and, of course, the seemingly endless benefits of a David Attenborough voiceover, packaging is well on the agenda, a debate Vanston very much welcomes.

“It’s pretty much accepted now that there has been a very large public wind of change and my members have been party to a lot of that change,” he says. “Yet change raises in itself a challenge. We have to look at the emotional narrative over the last three months and ask if that seismic shift is going to stay.

“It is much wider than a local campaign, it’s now a national and international problem. But the winds of change have given us a problem, we now have a very emotional narrative that we need to change into a rational policy.”

Bold promises

It is arguably one of the busiest times in INCPEN’s history, yet Vanston seems to be sailing those winds of change remarkably well. All the more impressive given that he only took over as chief executive in May last year, replacing Jane Bickerstaffe, who headed the organisation for 16 years.

He says: “I wanted to work with a range of companies that want to be on the right side of history and do the right things environmentally. Our members are not afraid to make changes where they need to be made and they all look to the future.”

Packaging and the environment may on the surface seem at odds, but it is an essential relationship. Vanston says: “INCPEN has a history back to 1974, and at those times the trade bodies in this sector were fewer and farther between – talking about packaging and environment in the same breath in those days was pretty special.”

The organisation now boasts members including P&G, Coca-Cola and Tesco, which all now have their own sustainability targets and commitments. Over the past few months, the big brands have made even bigger promises to significantly reduce packaging or get rid of it altogether.

Twitter echo chamber

We are all familiar with angry social media posts about excessively wrapped fruit and vegetables. However, scratch below the surface and consumers soon realise that packaging has a whole host of benefits. In fact, it is one of the main weapons in the ‘war against food waste’ by keeping food fresher for longer.

Vanston says: “It’s in our society’s interest to be very wary of demonising plastics when we know that the functionality it’s delivered over the last 50 years has been extremely useful. Part of our challenge is to keep the functionality that we like in terms of how we live and consumer, but balance that with the environmental outcomes we’re hoping to achieve.”

Rather than criticising packaging as the sole reason for litter and pollution, Vanston argues it should be put into a larger context. “It’s easy to point the fingers of blame, but I think this issue should go from society back to society. We’ve created a way of living across the globe and now have all sorts of issues in terms of how we live and how it supports the environment.”

Responding to the angry criticism from the worldwide web, Vanston, a prolific tweeter himself, is surprisingly composed. He says: “I can understand how the narrative develops on social media, and each social media platform has a different role to play. Twitter can create echo chambers that allow you to just follow others who are just pro this or that.”

Vanston has developed a solicitous way to deal with the criticism, something which the general public could learn a lot from. He says: “I follow the principle of seeking first to understand, and then be understood. I don’t feel that there’s anything to be gained from being overly defensive, but there’s a lot to be gained from showing understanding.”

Born and bred in Devon, he knows first-hand the devastating impact of littered packaging on the environment. “I know full well the land and ocean issues, I have two national parks on my doorstep, two coastlines, what sort of person would I be if I didn’t care about the issues that people who love the land care about?

“I do understand the arguments, but I think it spans more from society getting out of sync with how it consumes and behaves compared with our environmental responsibilities. Bringing this back has got to be our challenge.”

So, how can a solution to the packaging vs food waste debate be reached? Vanston predicts it can only be achieved when all parts of the value chain are working together, all the way from packaging design to the consumer. He also acknowledges that the problem isn’t simply a case of what is valued more – food waste or packaging pollution. He says: “There isn’t a perfect bit of packaging that gives us the best energy, water, materials, recyclability. We’ve got to make the best decisions based on what we know.

“Everything seems to be very binary these days. The problem is passionately understood but it’s assumed that the solution has to be yes or no. We know that the solutions have to go much wider than that. In an imperfect world we have to end up with more trade-offs with what the balanced answer is going to be.”

You’ve got a friend in me

Unless you have been hiding under a rock (and who can blame you given the ongoing Brexit saga), you will know the government launched its 25 Year Environment Plan in February. And that everyone had their own opinion on it. Where some criticised the plan for its lack of detail, Vanston, ever the optimist, argued it was a welcome opportunity for the sector.

Even the plastic-free aisle? He says: “I understand where these issues come from, and there’s a real sense of sincerity from people who care. But my suggestions would be to ask anybody: What are we seeking to achieve? What are the outcomes?”

Vanston has a close working relationship with Defra officials and is pleased by the momentum of the organisation that he says in the past was not always taken seriously.

“Michael Gove has substantial clout and can get things done, he’s very beneficial in Defra. It’s a much more important department than how it used to be perceived and is now routinely involved in all important discussions across government.”

But this momentum can bring about its own problems. Vanston continues: “There is a concern that the pace of change may mean we unavoidably have some legislation that is knee-jerk. We have to balance pace with the right legislation and ensure that if issues arise, they can be flexibly amended.”

This close working relationship with government has led to a partnership between INCPEN and WRAP, authorised by Gove. After a plastics roundtable in December, the Environment Secretary asked Vanston to seek the industry’s thoughts on the issue.

Four sectors (waste and resources, local authorities, designers and manufacturers and the general public) were all asked their views on a series of questions, including how to reduce the demand for plastic, how the system can support local authorities and how we can ensure what is procured is recycled.

The response, delivered in a letter last month by WRAP CEO Marcus Gover, was overwhelmingly in favour of packaging recovery note reform. Vanston says: “PRN reform kept coming up as part of the narrative and it is definitely needed. New principles may include a PRN system which rewards recyclability of packaging or recycled content, and prices PRNs the same whether they’re recycled or not.

“Reform can be a really useful way to change behaviours in the chain and give more support to local government at a time of austerity, widening out even further perhaps to on-the-go infrastructure which isn’t well developed.”

Since the roundtables, Vanston and Gover have been delivering weekly updates to Gove, another signifier that he is a man who tends to ‘get things done’.

As for the highly anticipated Resources and Waste Strategy, Vanston’s lips are sealed. “All the pieces are coming together, it’s in our interest as a value chain to work together to support that legislation process.”

Though questions marks still hang over where the problem-solving may lead, what is guaranteed is Vanston’s genuine willingness to make a difference. His belief in listening to as many voices as possible in order to create a joined-up strategy that Defra will easily understand is certainly encouraging. “In my small way, I just want to add value,” he says.

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