Sustainable packaging to benefit consumers and environment

29 December 2017

Consumer pressure has become a catalyst for the growth in sustainable packaging. Unilever, Waitrose and other industry leaders speak to Dave Howell about this and other factors that have shaped how their packaging delivers tangible benefits to consumers, as well as the environment.

Earlier in 2017, the Guardian reported that one million plastic bottles are bought every minute globally, are mostly for water. By 2021, this figure is expected to increase by 20%.

The urbanisation of China and ‘on-the-go’ culture in the West – where sales of bottled water continue to grow – are feeding the growth in the mountain of plastic bottles that are being manufactured. Moreover, just 7% of PET bottles that were bought in 2016 were recycled. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation succinctly states, “Shifting to a real circular economy for plastics is a massive opportunity to close the loop, save billions of dollars and decouple plastics production from fossil fuel consumption.”

Innovate to survive

A positive reaction is taking place with brands and their supply partners, which are innovating to reduce the environmental burden that packaging continues to pose. According to Technavio, the global market for biodegradable paper packaging materials will grow by a compound annual growth rate of 11% until the end of 2021, and bioplastics account for 54% of the current market.

Mounting consumer pressure has proved to be powerful, and is the main reason behind this change says Rachel Kenyon, vice-president of the Fibre Box Association, who adds, “Sustainability is about so much more than material selection and its end-of-life options. Consumers readily understand recyclability, biodegradability and reusability. The more challenging issue is how a package, or product, is manufactured. Is it made from renewable resources? Is the production energy intensive?”

Consumers, particularly the millennial generation, are rapidly changing their buying habits – especially in the food sector. Flexible packaging is becoming more popular, taking over from rigid packs that were once the norm, because it is convenient and easy to dispose of. ProAmpac recently found that moving to flexible pouches can have a dramatic impact on a brand’s costs, as they require fewer pallets to transport packs through the supply chain. However, mixed-media pouches are difficult to recycle and filling plants will incur high costs by transitioning to a flexible pouch output. These pressure points are being addressed and solutions should start to appear in the near future.

The circular economy and new packaging for recyclability

Simply increasing the quantity of recycled plastics in new packaging is often not possible. For example, Coca-Cola states that it currently uses 25% of recycled plastic in its bottles. The company aims to increase this to 50% by 2020, but it notes that this would put immense pressure on the availability of current volumes of recycled plastic. There is a clear and present danger that recycling services will be overwhelmed if sales of plastic bottles continue on their upward trajectory. In addition, big brands also understand that they need to do more to meet the environmental demands of their consumers, which presents an opportunity to grasp how innovation could reduce their costs. Unilever, for instance, has developed the CreaSolv process in association with the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Germany. This new technique has been adapted from a method that used to separate brominated flame retardants from waste electrical and electronic equipment polymers, in order to increase the 14% of waste sachets that are recycled. During this process, the plastic is recovered from the sachet and is then used to make new sachets for Unilever products, therefore promoting a full circular economy.

David Blanchard, chief R&D officer at Unilever, says, “We know that globally $80–120 billion is lost to the economy through failing to properly recycle plastics each year. Finding a solution represents a huge opportunity. We believe that our commitment to making 100% of our packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable will support the long-term growth of our business.”

Combating over-packaging, improving recycling features and evolving future brand communications are all key drivers for businesses. Joseph O’Connell, The Hershey Company’s senior manager for applied research packaging development says, “At Hershey, we take a balanced approach to reduce our environmental impact, with key goals on packaging, water, waste and emissions reductions. In 2015, we joined more than 150 companies in signing the American Business Act on Climate Pledge to demonstrate our support for taking action against climate change. Over the past two years, we have reduced packaging waste by 9.2 million pounds, putting us about 37% of the way towards our objective of reducing 25 million pounds of material by 2025.”

More responsibility from well-known brands

Introducing responsible packaging is a goal that many brands are supporting, including Waitrose. The packaging for its own-brand sandwiches now has a peelable tab that not only makes removing the plastic window on their packs much easier, but also helps their customers’ recycling efforts.

Karen Graley, packaging and reprographics manager at Waitrose, states, “The change to our sandwich packaging may seem like a small one, but it’s likely to make a big impact on the amount of packaging recycled. We continue to work on a solution to the pack’s plastic film in the hope that none of the sandwich pack will go to the landfill. Our ambition for 100% of our own-label packaging being widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025 is set to make a tangible difference to the environment.”

Brands are also tasking their packaging partners to innovate with environmentally friendly substrates and form factors. Take Parkside Flexibles, which was asked by ethical food brand Rhythm 108 to develop a new pack for its biscuit range. The company successfully went on to develop a fully compostable material that was sourced from eucalyptus trees.

“More customers are looking for healthy organic snacking options. With our convenient packets, we believe our Ooh-la-la Tea Biscuits target all three customer preferences: healthy, wholesome ingredients and fabulous taste. The packaging is not only convenient and suited to today’s on-the -go lifestyle, but is also environmentally friendly as it’s made from bio-based materials that can be thrown in the compost bin at home,” explains Siddhi Mehta, founder of Rhythm 108.

Take away the restraints

Of course, in an ideal world, packaging would not be needed. Marks & Spencer (M&S) is currently testing this with laser-labelled avocados. Removing the need for a traditional label gives the supermarket a unique offering in its stores, illustrating how some areas of food retailing could innovate to reduce or even remove packaging altogether.

“Responsible manufacturing is at the heart of our business and the laser labelling is a brilliant way for us to reduce packaging and energy use,” affirms Charlotte Curtis, a fruit technologist at M&S.

Meeting the demands of consumer pressure

Increasing environmental awareness has a strong commercial component. Brands that pay attention to how consumers choose brands to purchase from will ultimately be those that survive long term. “Consumers – especially millennials, and those following lifestyles of health and sustainability – expect brands and retailers to be operationally more responsible and, even more importantly, to offer sustainable products to end consumers,” says Ace Fung, global product manager at SIG Combibloc. “Consumers want to do their part to ensure a greener future, and they are willing to search and purchase alternative products to meet their day-to-day needs.”

For brands, the pressure that consumers are placing on them to deliver sustainable packaging is driving constant advancement. “Consumers are increasingly motivated to make more environmentally responsible choices for the products that they buy,” affirms Jan Weernink, business director of metal packaging at The Dow Chemical Company. “The packaging industry needs to help inform consumers about resource-efficient and responsible packaging. To achieve this, the packaging industry must make people aware of the value of packaging, with regard to the materials used, the amount of energy consumed to make it and its recyclability.”

A brand’s corporate social responsibility needs to be transparent and illustrate the practical steps that it is taking to protect the environment. A company’s packaging must also meet consumer demand for packaging innovation and convenience of disposal, all while maintaining engaging features. Brands are striving to deliver on consumer demand for packaging that has a minimal impact on the environment. As new technologies and processes are developed, sustainable packaging will become the norm.

ProAmpac recently started to use flexible pouches, which have been cost-effective.
Marks & Spencer’s have done away with packaging altogether. With laser labelling, the brand has shown that it is committed to being more sustainable.

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