They don’t make them like they used to

Contrary to some perceptions, traditional materials used in packaging have a future, as Edwin Smith discovers


REBECCA COCKING, HEAD OF CONTAINER AFFAIRS, BRITISH GLASS

Glass has always been environmentally friendly – you can take an old container or bottle and turn it into a new one without any loss of material or quality.

A lot of work is being done to save energy and transport costs by taking weight out of the bottles themselves. A wine or spirit bottle might now weigh 300g, half what it would have been ten or fifteen years ago.

With bottles that are exported to foreign markets, such as whisky, the way they look and are designed is influenced by the consumers in those countries. So it’s not always as straightforward as saying “in the future we’re going to make everything lightweight”.

Returnable bottles have always been popular in local areas served by the microbreweries of Germany or wine producers of France, but logistically it’s often not as environmentally friendly to do that in the UK. The increase in the number of British microbreweries has helped and some companies, such as Barr who make Irn-Bru, buck the trend. But Carlsberg, for example, has just one facility in the UK. It doesn’t make sense to reverse-haul bottles from one end of the country to the other.

NICK MULLEN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, METAL PACKAGING MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION

We’re working on increasing people’s understanding of the way materials work in a closed-loop environment. Organic materials, paper and plastic all degrade over time and with use, but once you have invested in the raw materials and put the energy into the manufacturing process, metal is a permanently available material. We have a target that eventually no metal packaging should go to landfill. But the goal for 2020 is to recycle at least 80 per cent of it across Europe.

When it comes to re-purposing or recycling aluminium, for example, you only need 5 per cent of the energy. With steel about 75 per cent of the energy is recovered. But this can be quite a challenging concept for people to grasp.

Improvements to technology are being made all the time. One of the most interesting is the work done by a company called Ardagh. Food cans tend to be much heavier than beverage cans because beverage cans get strength from the pressure created by the carbonated liquid inside them. Ardagh has developed a new technique called “nitrogen flushing” that uses a similar principle. It allows you to reduce the weight of a food can by 15 per cent and the wall thickness by about 40 per cent.

DAVID WORKMAN, DIRECTOR GENERAL, CONFEDERATION OF PAPER INDUSTRIES

Corrugated cardboard boxes may not be the most interesting thing in the world, but a lot of work goes into them. Innovation and design in paper and cardboard packaging focuses on saving space on lorries and on shop shelves, but it’s quite hard to quantify.

If you look at the environmental credentials, we’ve come a long way. The amount of energy we need to produce a tonne of paper in the UK has fallen by more than 30 per cent in the last 20 years and carbon emissions have fallen 42 per cent per tonne.

We’re selling packaging material to industries further down the supply chain, so their demands and the demands of consumers dictate the nature of packaging. But it’s a cost, so they’re not going to use any more than they have to.

As an industry, if we are to fall in line with wider government targets of an 80 per cent reduction in total carbon emissions by 2050, then there have to be some breakthrough technologies and a revolution in the way we manufacture.

In the future I expect further mergers, acquisitions and takeovers throughout the industry. That will help to improve design and research.

PHILIP LAW, PUBLIC AND INDUSTRIAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR, BRITISH PLASTICS FEDERATION

One of the main advantages of plastic is that it allows for a lot of design freedom. You can achieve an almost unlimited number of shapes by using different techniques – and to short timescales. That means that the industry can respond quickly to changing social requirements. For example, the recession has forced people to economise and there is a demand for smaller portions.

New designs, such as the infini bottle, are becoming more lightweight – up to 25 per cent lighter – while still meeting performance specifications. It’s also 100 per cent recyclable and contains up to 15 per cent recycled high-density polyethylene; that’s targeted to rise to 50 per cent by 2020.

One of the challenges that the industry faces is dealing with the misconception that some forms of plastic can’t be recycled. The good news is that the rate of recycling is on the up and, for some types of packaging, it is already very high. Plastic milk bottles, for example, are recycled at a rate of 76 per cent. Another thing we’re focused on is securing public appreciation of the role and benefits of plastics packaging, especially how it saves energy in transportation and how it keeps food fresher for longer.

JOHN DYE, PRESIDENT, TIMCON

I always say that you can look at the stock exchanges and listen to the politicians, but if wooden pallet manufacturers are not selling pallets, then the economy isn’t in good shape. The industry is a good economic indicator because 90 to 95 per cent of goods moved around the world are on wooden pallets.

Recently, UK manufacturing has taken a hit and so there has been a decline in demand for new pallets. We’re hopeful that’s going to change, but the trend is also down to a marked increase in reuse. More customers are becoming environmentally aware, more companies are offering repair services and users are increasingly taking the view that the initial cost is not the be all and end all – cost per trip is now a more important consideration.

Wood is the most environmentally friendly packaging material. It’s sustainable, recyclable, repairable, so nothing has really changed. But we still need to make people realise this. As trees grow, they suck in CO₂ from the atmosphere. Once the tree is felled and made into a pallet, the vast majority of the CO₂ is locked into the pallet for its lifetime, which can be 20 or 30 years.