Facing the environmental challenges of packaging

Michael Warhurst

When it comes to the environmental impacts of our products, a focus on packaging can make it hard to see the wood for the trees.

The biggest pressure on our natural world has more to do with how the goods inside the packaging are made, such as mining minerals for the components in smartphones and other gadgets, which can devastate ecosystems and contaminate water.

When you look at energy use, what’s used to create packaging is relatively small. For example, of the total energy used in the food chain, 50 per cent is in food production, 10 per cent on transport to the shops and 10 per cent to make the packaging. The remaining 30 per cent is used by shoppers to drive to the shops, store and cook the food, according to waste experts WRAP.

However, there is still significant room for improvement in how packaging is made. Each stage of its production – forestry, pulping, processing, and printing – has associated environmental and human impacts.

The Forest Trust, which works with companies to help them deliver sustainable products, says that, although the industry is improving, it has been linked to “illegal logging, deforestation, pollution from pulp mills and weak recycling programmes”, while plantation forests are responsible for losses of biodiversity.

Being associated with environmental and social problems carries serious reputational risks for companies. For example, in 2012, Greenpeace revealed that companies, such as KFC and Mattel, used packaging linked to the deforestation of native Indonesian forest, through the activity of supplier Asia Pulp & Paper, which was involved in harvesting fibre from protected rainforests. These forests are home to the endangered Sumatran tiger, of which only 400 remain.

Following pressure from customers, Asia Pulp & Paper committed to end deforestation in February 2013. However, Greenpeace reports that another Indonesian company, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited, is responsible for clearing around 60,000 hectares of rainforests a year to supply its pulp mill in Sumatra.

Clearing forests for packaging also worsens climate change. Indonesia ranks as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, of which 85 per cent is from land-use change due almost entirely to deforestation and peatland degradation.

There is still significant room for improvement in how packaging is made

The production process takes its toll too. Transforming wood from trees into thin, uniform paper products requires the intensive use of wood, energy and chemicals, according to the Environmental Paper Network. A 2011 study estimated it takes between two and thirteen litres of water to make just one piece of A4 paper.

Then there’s the “land footprint” of packaging. That’s the area of land required to grow the trees to make it – not just what we take home, but everything necessary as things are shipped from factory to store.

For Friends of the Earth, environmental data experts Trucost examined the total land footprint of a typical smartphone. They found that 55 per cent went into making the packaging, with 43 per cent used to mine for raw materials and tiny amounts for other stages of production, such as manufacturing. With increased competition for land already leading to problems in developing countries, such as communities evicted from their homes in land-grabs and millions going hungry, reducing land use is crucial.

Complicated and lengthy supply chains can make it challenging for companies to know whether they are sourcing sustainable packaging. That’s why Friends of the Earth’s Make It Better campaign is calling for strong EU transparency rules to help and require all large companies in Europe to reveal the full human and environmental impacts of their operations. This would make it easier for companies to understand what’s happening at the end of their supply chains – and deal with any problems.

For example, they could take steps to work with suppliers to ensure paper is sustainably sourced, avoiding deforestation and destruction of habitats, and produced efficiently to reduce water and chemical use. Rethinking design plays a big part too, to ensure packaging is streamlined and fully recyclable. Many of us get frustrated with things like unnecessary layers of sealed packages, which often come with gadgets, or black plastic food trays that can’t be recycled.

Tough European transparency legislation would encourage environmentally friendly practice and innovation across the board. However, there are gaping loopholes in the current EU proposals. Friends of the Earth and thousands of people are calling on the UK government to back improvements to ensure all large companies report major risks to people and the environment that occur in their supply chain.

Dr Michael Warhurst is an environmental chemist who focuses on UK and European Union waste policy.

You can sign the petition at www.foe.co.uk/makeitbetter

Jane Bickerstaffe

Packaging is as critical to modern life as the water supply system. Towns and cities could not exist without it and today more than half the global population lives in urban areas.

It performs a major role in protecting far more resources than it uses and preventing far more waste than it generates. There is always room for improvement, but manufacturers and retailers have both economic and environmental reasons to get it right, simply because their costs are lower if they use fewer materials, energy and water.

Despite this, far from being acknowledged as an essential and beneficial part of getting food and other products to us in a safe, clean and undamaged state, packaging is widely derided and criticised.

Ten times more resources go into producing products than making their packaging so the packaging has to ensure that that those resources do not go to waste.

Only the manufacturer knows the stresses and strains that the product has to endure – how high it has to be stacked in storage, how it fits in the distribution lorry, how the filling machinery works and what temperature ranges it will meet.

For this reason, manufacturers need to be able to choose from the widest possible range of types of packaging to match it to the requirements of the product, the supply system and the end-user.

As consumers, we only see packaging when the product has reached the shop. By then it has almost finished its useful life. None of us, therefore, have sufficient knowledge to be able to judge how much or how little packaging is needed.

Ten times more resources go into producing products than making their packaging

Politicians tend to relate to packaging in the same way as consumers and some are tempted to “do something about it”. This has led to restrictions and taxes in many countries, and is the biggest barrier to making packaging even more resource-efficient.

Some politicians favour making supply chain companies responsible not only for the environmental impact of their products and packaging, but also for the cost of recycling used packaging. UK manufacturers and retailers already contribute more than £50 million a year to support recovery and recycling.

Recovery and recycling is well established across Europe. Incremental improvements will happen, but there needs to be a realistic approach to what is achievable. Unrealistically high targets will push recycling where it is not environmentally and economically viable.

All systems have leakage which means 100 per cent is never achievable. Not all households are provided with collection facilities; those that are may not use them; those that do may not contribute all their recyclables; and some of the weight of collected material will not be recyclable because of contamination and moisture.

What this means is that, if 95 per cent of households have collection facilities, 95 per cent of those households use them and contribute 90 per cent of their recyclables, and there is only 10 per cent contamination, then the maximum amount of material that can be recycled is 73 per cent. This is a best case scenario and such high participation is seldom achieved.

Technically, everything can be recycled if enough resources and money are spent on collecting, sorting and cleaning. The question is, should we? We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the whole purpose of recycling is to conserve resources, so using more resources than are recovered makes absolutely no sense.

Used packaging can and increasingly is being well managed. The big problem is food waste. It is a huge environmental problem in developed countries and an environmental disaster in developing ones. Globally we currently grow enough food to feed everyone. The problem is that globally up to 50 per cent is wasted.

In developing countries, it is usually because the infrastructure has not been developed: poor roads, inadequate vehicles and a lack of packaging make it difficult to get food from producer to consumer in good condition.

While in developed countries, with efficient food supply chains, good roads, and technologically advanced distribution and packaging systems, comparatively little food is wasted en route to the retailer.

Food waste occurs in people’s homes and after it reaches the depot. The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) is working with Kent Resource Partnership, the Food and Drink Federation, the Packaging Federation and the Love Food Hate Waste campaign to help consumers reduce food waste at home in a project called Fresher for Longer.

Recent INCPEN research, Checking Out Food Waste, highlighted which foods are wasted between retail depot and check-out (bananas, bread and eggs topped the list). The three major supermarkets who participated are already working on ways to reduce it.

There are a variety of reasons for food being wasted and, therefore, a number of solutions, but there’s one solution common to many situations – packaging. Reduce waste, buy packaged.

Packaging is not an evil waste of resources, it is the good guy.

Jane Bickerstaffe argues that misconceptions about packaging are in danger of restricting innovation.