Circular argument7 May 2019
Packaging as a concept is changing. It's as important as the product within for forward-thinking consumers, as well as law makers and global brands. So how can the industry help? Emma-Jane Batey asks leaders across the supply chain to share their thoughts on the future of plastic – a future we can be proud of.
Increased use of rPET is clearly a massive driver for leading global brands, in terms of meeting their strict CSR requirements and to positively respond to pressure from environmentally aware consumers. It's worth remembering that brands are made up of consumers too; yes, they have to be on-corporate-message and address the defined goals of their employers, but companies are made up of individuals who have families and social consciences too.
But there seems to be an elephant in the room. Where is all this rPET going to come from? Until there are responsible, realistic and reliable collection systems in place across developed countries and cities around the world, the promises that brands – and EU directives – are making to include upwards of 35–55% recycled plastic in their packaging just can't be kept.
Emmanuel Duffaut, director of sustainability at global plastic packaging manufacturer RETAL, is a vocal supporter of a realistic and responsible approach to the circular economy.
“The big driver for plastic-packaging manufacturers like us,” he explains, “is the public commitment that our major-brand customers have taken regarding the volume of recycled material in their packaging, which is not just about plastic, but also materials like aluminium or glass, for example. Our global customers are already asking for it, so we already include rPET in our preforms – some of our facilities are capable of up to 100% rPET preforms – and we produce rPET preforms for global mineral-water brands.”
RETAL's research and development specialist for the beverage sector, Vlad Gaskarov, agrees that the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. He says, “PET is still an excellent packaging material. It's light, collapsible, has a low CO2 footprint and uses less energy to produce than many alternative materials. Even paper, which is widely considered by consumers as a responsible packaging material, is not often used by itself – it's usually got a film or other layers that are hard to recycle. Collection of PET is the key to the circular economy; education is a massive part of that – too many consumers just throw their PET packaging away. So the challenge is to collect it effectively and efficiently. In some European countries, over 95% of PET is collected. That's what every developed country needs to do. Then there will be plenty of rPET to meet the demands of the EU Directive and global brands.”
With the push coming from all directions – legal, consumer, manufacturer and brand-owners – the want for responsible plastic is not going away. As manufacturers highlight the importance of ensuring a reliable, regular supply needs to be addressed by the vertical recycling organisations, the actual visibility of responsible plastic on the shelves – and online – is where consumers vote with their feet.
For 'affordable luxury' personal-care brand Brodie & Stone, a Soho-based manufacturer that develops and creates supermarket brands including Colorsport eyelash dye and Janina UltraWhite toothpaste, it's long-term focus on 'problem-solution brands' means that it has plenty of experience in staying in close contact with its consumers. Head of product development Emilie Andre explains how this approach has influenced its latest packaging move for its hugely successful haircare brand Natural World, which has now been rebranded to only use post-consumer recycled (PCR) packaging.
Andre says, “Natural World is a vegan, natural and cruelty-free haircare range that uses the best superfood ingredients from around the world. We are very conscious about the environment and the impact of the production of plastic within our natural resources. We are always looking for eco-friendlier alternatives to offer to our customers and avoid highly contaminating techniques, as this is against our values. PCR are plastic products that have been recycled, which means they have been reprocessed to be reused in new manufacturing. PCR has a natural tint. It also conserves energy and non-renewable resources as recycling replaces the need for primary extraction and the manufacture of new plastics. We also have a new bio-based label.”
It is interesting to note that Brodie & Stone's decision to move entirely to PCR for its Natural World range was not without challenge, but that these challenges did not overturn its decision.
Andre explains, “Our main challenge was to match the current colour of our existing packaging to the new PCR PET bottle. As the plastic is not a virgin resource, the final colour of the bottle is a bit grey, which makes it difficult to obtain bright colours. We are delighted that our new packaging clearly offers an eco-friendlier alternative to our customers, who are becoming more environmentally-conscious. It also opens the door to new ecological markets, such as supermarkets, which are following this trend.”
The idea of 'following a trend' can make it sound transient, but the truth is the discussion about the future of plastic is not going away. We will all need to be responsible. Duffaut explains, “It will be impossible to meet the EU Directive legislation for 35–55% rPET content by 2020 without a true circular economy; we all need to invest in joined-up thinking.
Nothing to whine about
One brand that has harnessed the future of plastic in a positive and profitable way in 2018, and looks set to blast its targets in 2019 and beyond, is the multi-award-winning flat wine-bottle manufacturer Garçon Wines. Its creation of 100% rPET, full-size, postable wine bottles, manufactured by Suffolk-based RPC M&H Plastics, has taken the wine and gifting sectors by storm, with retailers and bottle manufacturers as impressed as the consumers, who are enjoying the wine in their thousands. At Garçon Wines' helm is co-founder Santiago Navarro, a vocal supporter of delicious wine and responsible packaging. His thoughts on the future of plastic highlight how innovation breeds success.
“The future of plastic, the future of packaging and the future of our planet are inextricably linked,” Navarro begins. “But I am clear that the future of any material, and the future of any product or medium, pale in comparison to the future of our planet. Global warming is a direct existential threat to us. My view, and the view that forms the fundamentals to my game-changing company, is that all material and commercial decisions should be taken with climate change clearly in mind. We should choose the right materials, implement the right packaging, and incentivise the right behaviours for the 21st century and the health of our planet. We should all subscribe to a future where we have zero avoidable waste or litter from plastic, glass and other materials. We benefit from the systems, processes and technologies to recycle or repurpose materials, and there is no just reason why we should do otherwise.”
With such obviously accurate advice, it is clear that the circular economy goes beyond simply being a good idea and is, in fact, the right thing to do.
Navarro agrees, “Our goal at Garçon Wines is to develop a closed-loop, circular business model where zero avoidable bottles of ours end up as waste or litter. We have developed a unique and innovative wine bottle, which is 40% spatially more efficient – it has a novel, flat shape – and 87% lighter than the dominant status quo. We will now do all within our powers to develop the processes and implement the systems to mitigate against any of our bottles not being reprocessed back into new ones. We have the opportunity to be a new benchmark in product design, recyclability and sustainability.”
This notion of seeing the challenge of using rPET and PRC PET as an opportunity is perhaps the most important shift the packaging industry needs to make. How exciting that we can all positively impact on the future of plastic just by using our skills a little differently.