The long, hard road to sustainable packaging

As more brands pledge to go green, what is the impact of using environmentally-friendly packaging on all links in the supply chain?

Increasing consumer pressure, instigated by what is now known as the Attenborough effect, and recent pledges from the UK government to eliminate plastic waste by 2042, have forced brands and retailers to rethink the sustainability of their product’s packaging.

Consequently, numerous brands, including McDonald’s, Deliveroo and Iceland, have made pledges to go plastic free or to use 100 per cent sustainable packaging.

These promises are a win for a brand’s public relations as well as the environment. But how challenging is it for the packaging manufacturers to make the change?

Transitioning to greater sustainability must be done with careful consideration

Packaging affects the entire supply chain, starting with the material producer to the converter, to the brand owner and retailer, to the waste and recycling organisations. And then back to the material supplier again.

Given the intricate complexities and the often-changing tide of public opinion, the challenge for packaging manufacturers starts with determining which new material is best to invest in.

“Some companies are nervous about committing to buying a new material or to invest in developing a new piece of packaging when they don’t know how successful it is going to be,” says Tracy Sutton, circular economy packaging design consultant at Root.

Previously, says Barrington Pamplin, a packaging technologist for 30 years and technical director at consultancy ThePackHub, there was a push for light-weighting materials, so packagers swapped glass bottles for plastic ones. Now plastic is on the blacklist.

“Packagers have to react to pressure from the media and lobby groups, but many elements of sustainability, such as recycling, are out of their control,” says Mr Pamplin.

So-called sustainable and recyclable materials, such as biodegradable and bioderived plastics, which packagers may look to transition to, away from fossil fuel-based ones, are not in fact widely recycled, but instead collected as general waste.

“It should be laid out clearly what materials can be recycled and what cannot to reduce investment risk,” says Mr Pamplin.

The cost of sustainable packaging can be substantial for manufacturers

Furthermore, in the UK and other places, waste collection and recycling is not co-ordinated centrally, but by local authorities, creating inconsistences and hindering closed-loop recycling of materials.

In January, Unilever in Australia called for standardisation of the waste management laws and regulations across three tiers of government. It said differing recycling policies were slowing down progress in sustainability.

Such a disjoint in waste management can make it harder for investment in recycling facilities, thus hindering material supply for packagers, says Mr Pamplin, because the waste stock is lacking or of poor quality. For some materials, there is an oversupply, while for others there is a shortage.

This is even more challenging in developing nations, which have far bigger pollution problems and where recycling is significantly less advanced.

Using recycled and new materials are also, on average, more expensive than virgin ones. “Their cost is almost always higher because they don’t have the same scale of production, and additional research and development investment is needed to change the machinery line,” says Dominic Cakebread, director of consulting for packaging at Global Data. The cost implications, he says, are much higher upstream of the supply chain.

“For brands, it will be around 1 per cent on cost, but for manufacturers it will be around 10 per cent because they have to make an upfront investment,” says Mr Cakebread.

He adds that these costs tend to come down when volume increases and the original investment is recovered.

Transitioning to more sustainable packaging takes time

There are timescales of up to 18 months, or longer for larger companies, to also consider, according to Mr Pamplin, which may require some internal restructuring.

“Changing a can to a pouch requires a completely new production line, as well as the need to prove that the quality of the shelf life, product, food safety and how it travels are not adversely affected,” he explains.

At present, demand for sustainable packaging has only started trickling down to manufacturers, according to Ms Sutton.

“There is no doubt it is increasing, but not at the rate needed to really encourage more strategic investment by packagers to offer a sound portfolio of easy-to-recycle materials and packs,” she says. “However, they have the opportunity to invest strategically and develop an informed packaging design strategy, enabling them to really support brands that want tried-and-tested solutions, which can be recycled.”

Martin Leeming, chief executive at TrakRap, says if big brands approved new types of sustainable packaging quicker it would accelerate the process massively. Brands, on the other hand, are sometimes uncertain about implementing change too fast.

The Hilton hotel chain has committed to cutting its global environmental impact in half by 2030, which involves reducing its plastic. But it will do so incrementally, says Maxime Verstraete, the company’s vice president of corporate responsibility.

“From our perspective, it is better to start small and scale up, because the world changes so rapidly and implementing something across all our hotels takes a long time,” he says.

To manage the transition to a more sustainable packaging future, Mr Pamplin thinks some smaller companies may need government support due to a lack of resources. Whereas, most experts agree a national tax on plastic is more likely to be created to incentivise change.

Many small steps packagers can take to be more eco-friendly

Though there are considerable challenges, many of which are out of a packager’s control, there are also numerous, effective ways for them to be more environmentally friendly. Sustainability, after all, often goes hand in hand with cost reductions if it is implemented at the design stage to reduce packaging size and material use.

Major packaging firm, DS Smith use made-to-fit technology to package ecommerce products more snugly. Their machine achieves a 99 per cent fill rate for a single shipment, reducing transportation carbon emissions, an aspect of sustainability often overlooked, according to Isabel Rocher, the company’s head of ecommerce.

Sustainability often goes hand in hand with cost reductions if it is implemented at the design stage to reduce packaging size and material use

Investment in the technology pays for itself in a year, Ms Rocher says. But she concedes that the future of packaging will be challenging for everyone. However, those who are “a little visionary and flexible enough” will adapt, she says.

“Sustainability is really exciting if you are investing in the right solutions,” Ms Rocher concludes. “I think some organisations will struggle, but for the most part it’s a great opportunity.”

Good plastic or bad plastic?

Plastic is perceived as the least sustainable packaging material. Yet if it was banned tomorrow, the whole infrastructure of how we shop and feed ourselves would need to change, says Barrington Pamplin, technical director at consultancy ThePackHub.

So is plastic really that bad? “Plastics have been demonised but sometimes they are the more sustainable option,” says Sam Jones, customer sustainability manager at DS Smith.

He offers the example of their plastic beer crates, which can be used for 17 years, then ground and reformed again in 30 minutes.

Like aluminium and glass, which are more carbon intensive to produce, some plastics can be recycled.

In the UK, Coca-Cola, at a cost of £250 million over five years, has developed new technologies that mean 100 per cent of the packaging the company uses, both primary and secondary, is recyclable.

“While we do not view our packs as ‘single use’,” says Liz Lowe, corporate responsibility and sustainability manager at Coca-Cola Great Britain, “the fact is too many consumers still do.”

According to many industry experts, part of the plastics problem is that the material is perceived as having no value, unlike glass or aluminium, so it is often thrown away instead of recycled.

This is a problem acknowledged by the European Union, which has created a new directive to make all plastic packaging across Europe recyclable or reusable by 2030. Presently, some renewable or compostable plastics are not widely recycled.