A renaissance for simpler packaging

In the quest for an environmentally-friendly circular economy, what goes around comes around

Wrag Wrap sells reusable, fabric gift wrap for presents, made from recycled plastic bottles. The company was started eight years ago, but only recently has demand quadrupled. “Call it the Blue Planet effect,” explains Nicky Rajska, co-founder of the company. “The mass market is now informed about the issue of single-use plastic and the environment; there’s been a turning point.”

At the same time, consumer-led innovation and backing is on the rise. Recently, Recycling Technologies raised £3.7 million in just two weeks, partly by crowdfunding, for the use of novel technology that will chemically recycle plastic packaging in the UK.

“Crowdfunding has completely changed the way environmentally friendly products are founded. The creator doesn’t have to a big company these days, it can be anyone with a good idea,” says Anna Glansén, a designer from Tomorrow Machine, a Stockholm-based studio specialising in novel packaging.

Take Final Straw; in the United States it plans to replace single-use plastic straws with a novel metal one. The company asked for $12,500 on Kickstarter and in the end crowdfunded $1.8 million.

“A lot of startups are now working to develop sustainable packaging solutions that challenge traditional industries,” says Caroline Bettan, co-founder of Newcy, a French company developing a reusable cup for office coffee machines. “Consumers can make companies accountable for the products they use and that’s a great way to lessen their environmental impact.”

Packaging sector is under pressure to act quickly 

China’s ban on imports of packaging waste earlier this year is also shaking up industry and recycling at local authorities, while a proposed deposit return scheme for plastic bottles from the UK government shows a willingness to legislate. With 700,000 bottles littered every day in the UK, according to the Environmental Audit Committee, there are strong grounds for action.

Then there’s the UK Plastic Pledge, which saw 42 companies sign up to a pact in April. This aims to cut plastic and eliminate unnecessary single-use packaging by 2025.

“The sector is now under immense pressure to take action fast, with retailers and manufacturers being forced to plan for plastic-free aisles, packaging take-back and much stricter end-of-life rules on products and packaging,” says David Honcoop, managing director of Clarity Environmental, a green compliance company.

The role of packaging is also changing in our lives with more home deliveries. Brand communication is increasingly done through webpages rather than packaged goods on supermarket shelves. Think Amazon’s Brown-Box.

“Customers are now choosing brands based on their philosophy than by their actual packaging. One of the significant principles brands should have is their own established code of ethics, this includes packaging design,” says Kosuke Araki, a Japanese designer who uses agar for packaging and producing tableware out of food waste.

Back to the future: frugality is in, excess packaging is out

Some are hailing this as a “back to the future” age of paper bags and recyclable glass bottles, reversing the switch to plastic packaging which was introduced for greater production efficiency, lower cost and less weight in distribution.

“Glass packaging was precisely the system that was abandoned in the 1970s because it was wasteful, outmoded and tied retailers and pubs into the distribution systems of dominant manufacturers,” explains Nick Cooper, executive director at Landor Associates.

Frugality when it comes to packaging is in. ‘The bigger the box, the better the toy’ is out, with consumer sentiment shifting. “It’s now the bigger the box, the fuller the bin,” says Pippa Moyle, founder of social media platform City Girl Network. “Brands need to start shifting their processes towards this new psychology.”

Some are hailing this as a ‘back to the future’ age of paper bags and recyclable glass bottles, reversing the switch to plastic packaging

Ms Moyle started a campaign called Trash Talk, with the support of Clarity Environmental, to identify consumer opinion on packaging waste, across its network in ten cities. “Environmental activism is becoming cool. The more that people are educated, the more questions they’re asking. The biggest challenge is the lack of communication between consumers and brands,” she says.

This has come at a time when there’s been an explosion in sustainable packaging solutions, bioplastics, new and innovative materials that are biodegradable, as well as recyclable products, all entering the market in a bid to satisfy evolving consumer demand.

“Yes, these are exciting times, but it’s all being done in a rush. Of course, we need new investment, but all these innovations are being created in isolation. We need an ecosystem approach,” says Benjamin Punchard, global packaging insights director at Mintel. “If new innovative packaging has a label saying check local recycling, that means nothing at all to most people.”

Green packaging must be approached with due care

Convenience is still king. If the consumer needs to work harder with their recycling, it’s an issue. Already there is a lack of coherency across local authorities. Much bioplastic packaging is not biodegradable and does not reduce waste.

“This is very difficult for consumers to understand. I have seen many products marketed as environmentally friendly without any scientific justification. This creates a new challenge. How can we clarify for consumers what is a truly sustainable choice?” says Suvi Haimi, co-founder of Sulapac, a Finnish company that produces innovative wood-based packaging. “We hope the authorities, especially the EU, will clarify for consumers what these choices are.”

The law of unintended consequences also looms large, if left solely to consumer-driven demand. Less packaging can mean more food waste and more carbon emissions in some cases. If packaging has no value, other than for compost, there’s a risk that consumers might care less about recycling. Bio-based packaging also takes up land to grow.

“With so much pressure to make changes, and as businesses join the race to ‘green’ their packaging, there is the risk of ill-informed decisions being taken. The industry must be encouraged to work together,” Clarity Environmental’s Mr Honcoop concludes.