How to package your product and help the planet

Whether you opt for glass, plastic or cardboard, sustainability is a key demand in product packaging. We break down the choices

Glass or plastic? Perhaps cardboard or corrugated paper? Whatever packaging material you choose, its environmental impact must now play a key role in your decision. 

Picking the right material for a particular product has always been complicated. Cost has long been the primary consideration for brands, along with weight, accessibility of design and deliverability. 

Today, environmental priorities are at the top of the list. That’s thanks to forthcoming government regulations like the Plastic Packaging Tax, which will be introduced in April, and the Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging, coming in 2024. 

Using plastic that can be recycled [can] in some instances be more environmentally friendly 

“Sustainable packaging used to be a ‘nice to have’, which didn’t really affect your bottom line much,” says Nicole Costantini, senior consultant for energy and the environment at Ricardo. “The new legislation has been completely redesigned to make it a priority, with increasing costs [for those who don’t comply]. I don’t think everyone is fully prepared for it.”

When it comes to the environmental impact of packaging materials, it’s impossible to tick all the boxes, says Costantini. Instead, brands should work out their individual objectives. These might be emissions-based or focused on circularity and recyclability. The companies should then set clear targets, which they then measure using robust data and lifecycle assessments (LCA) to ensure they’re meaningful.

Plastic potential

A choice between glass and plastic might seem like a no-brainer. Glass is 100% recyclable and one of the most frequently recycled materials in the UK, while plastic is made from oil and the poster child for planetary disaster. But when it comes to measurable environmental impact, things get a little more complicated.

“The challenge between tackling what is actually environmentally friendly versus consumer perception is something we come across a lot,” says Costantini. 

Glass can have a high carbon footprint. There are emissions during production and recycling and from the weight it adds to packaging, which increases transportation emissions. “Using plastic that can be recycled [can] in some instances be more environmentally friendly when you’re talking about an emissions perspective,” she notes.

Dr Manoj Dora is an expert in operations and supply chain management at Brunel University Business School. He agrees there isn’t a blanket rule that glass is better than plastic. However, single-use plastic is the most carbon intensive material of all, he notes, especially plastic film, which isn’t cost effective to recycle.

But there’s a problem. At this stage, there’s no viable alternative for packaging perishable foods. It is possible to switch out plastic in short, local supply chains, says Dora, or even remove it altogether. But in complex global systems, where fruit and veg travel long distances, film plastic packaging is necessary for hygiene and to ensure the longevity of the product.

Dora and his team mapped the supply chain for different food products from farm to fork, discovering that items were handled 32 times on average. “Every time we touch food there is a chance of contamination, wastage, spillage, and we lose a lot of food in the process,” he says. 

What’s more, studies have shown that cucumber wrapped in film will last 10-12 days, but without film it will go off very quickly. Research by Zero Waste Scotland showed that food waste can be a larger cause of carbon emissions than plastic.

Costantini thinks the carbon footprint of replacing more durable consumer products should not be ignored. “We need packaging that protects products or it’s not fulfilling its purpose. The carbon that’s embedded in the product usually far outweighs the carbon that’s embedded in the packaging,” she says.

Recycling, returning, reprocessing

Cardboard is a popular material as it’s generally cheaper, made with a high percentage of recycled materials, and widely recycled by UK households. However, barrier layers and laminates can be a bit more complicated in current reprocessing facilities. 

Recycling infrastructure across the UK is in dire need of reform and standardisation, which should be a focus of the Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging legislation in 2024.

“The government is looking at encouraging a concept called ‘eco-modulation’, where producers will pay less for packaging that can be recycled and more for packaging that can’t be,” says Costantini.

The European Commission is drawing up similar initiatives, which will encourage brands – especially global companies that work across territories – to use better-quality materials with a circular rather than linear system in mind. 

“If you’re using more durable and high-quality plastic packaging, that’s much more desirable for reprocessors and much more likely to be recycled into something similar to what it was originally designed for,” says Constantini. “It’s something brands need to start thinking about sooner rather than later.”

The deposit return scheme, which will be launched in Scotland in 2023 and England and Wales in late 2024, will also improve recyclability by incentivising consumers to return their glass or plastic bottles and cans for credit or cashback at local collection points. This will in turn improve the quality of the waste collected.

Composting complications

Using compostable materials sends a nice message to consumers, says Constantini, but she advises brand owners to be cautious. “If a piece of packaging is home compostable but looks like plastic and the consumer puts that packaging into the recycling, it will contaminate all the other plastic packaging in that waste stream,” she warns.

Constantini thinks such material has its place, but it needs to be well communicated to consumers on the packaging. This works well for brands that are known for their environmental credentials, such as Finisterre, an outdoor clothing brand that uses bio-based packaging which consumers can dissolve themselves using hot water.

“It’s important for brands like that to be leading the way and pushing the boundaries when it comes to bio-based materials,” she says.

Dora thinks the UK government should encourage more investment and research into bio-based materials, pointing to the use of banana leaves and bamboo in countries like India. 

“Everything revolves around cost. Plastic is the cheapest solution so far, but we now need to look for materials which are cost effective but bio-based with recyclability, so we rely less on plastic. We need to start thinking circular.”