How to make packaging sustainable

Do not dismiss packaging as a waste of materials, says Jane Bickerstaffe, director of INCPEN, the Industry Council for research on Packaging & the Environment


Jane Bickerstaff

The European Commission’s proposals for future policy on packaging, published in July, focus almost exclusively on what should be done with packaging at the end of its life. The proposals largely overlook the role that packaging plays in protecting food and other goods on their journey from farm or factory into people’s homes.

They also overlook the fact that ten times more resources are used to make products than to make the packaging that protects them. They therefore underestimate the need to ensure that companies choose the most appropriate packaging to prevent product waste.

In the next year or so, the European Parliament and governments of EU member states will give their views on the commission’s proposals.

Businesses need to take this opportunity to brief MEPs and government officials to ensure future policy leaves sufficient flexibility for packaging to respond to demographic and lifestyle changes as well as environmental issues.

While environmental considerations are very important, companies have to take into account a wide range of variables, including cost and functional requirements, when they decide what packaging to use. In addition they work out the best combination of primary, secondary and transport packaging.

Companies have a strong commercial incentive to do more with less

This can be at odds with initiatives from policymakers who, like members of the public, are often only aware of primary, sales packaging and may not grasp that there are inevitable trade-offs between levels of packaging. For example, reducing the weight of sales packaging may mean that secondary packaging has to be increased and vice versa.

Each packaging material has specific properties that provide protection against different hazards and prevent product wastage in different ways. Champagne needs a heavy glass bottle, whereas a vacuum skin pack protects and extends the shelf life of red meat; a mobile phone needs a strong board box.

IS RECYCLING RIGHT?

How a piece of packaging is treated at the end of its life is far less important than how it enables the supply chain to operate effectively and deliver products in perfect condition.  Recycling is not always the right thing to do. It can use more resources than it saves.

In recent years there has been a shift in attitudes. People are more aware of the need to conserve resources, the importance of reducing waste, especially waste of food, and the need to reduce energy consumption.

It is good to see a holistic approach receiving so much attention, but packaging manufacturers and retailers have been doing all these things for many years. Unfortunately, even now, many people still dismiss packaging as a waste of materials.

There are two key things to remember:

  • Without packaging, well over 90 per cent of the products we buy – all liquids, powders, granules, tissues, all imported foods such as coffee and oranges, let alone fragile, costly items such as computers and televisions – would not be available;
  • Companies need to be profitable, and packaging materials cost money and reduce profits, so no business is intentionally going to use packaging it does not need – companies have a strong commercial incentive to do more with less.

INCPEN’s members are manufacturers and retailers from across the supply chain who work together to promote responsible packaging for sustainable supply chains. A top priority for our work in coming months will be to share our research and knowledge with policymakers.