Sustainable packaging: where are we now?

29 July 2021, 07:45 AM
  • Four years since BBC series Blue Planet II lit a bonfire under industry efforts to evolve new ways of working, we take a fresh look at sustainable packaging
Sustainable packaging: where are we now?

Issues over sustainability have pitched the humble wrapper and box at the very heart of some serious challenges facing food and drink. It’s no surprise then that innovation has really picked up pace over recent years, winning kudos for the brands willing to go the extra mile.

Jimmy’s Iced Coffee moved the last of its range out of TetraPaks and into aluminium, launching infinitely recyclable ‘BottleCans’ in a first for the UK market. Silent Pool Distillers has served its latest special edition gin in a paperboard bottle. Meanwhile Conscious Chocolate has switched the inner film that wraps its bars to a compostable bioplastic made from eucalyptus pulp and Calvados bottles from Avallen are adorned with wrapped in labels made from apple pulp.

Our industry’s reliance on plastic packaging is front and centre in the consumer consciousness yet again after a damning investigation by Greenpeace made recent headlines. The environmental campaign group discovered British plastics exported for recycling to Turkey are routinely dumped or burnt on beaches and roadsides. Turkey has now banned British imports of plastic waste, but ugly images of plastic dumps in Malaysia and other destinations have reignited public concern over the impact of their shopping choices, and pushed plastic packaging back onto shoppers’ radar.

An eye-watering 1.8 million kilos of plastic packaging are exported every day, according to Greenpeace’s new Trashed report, and a recent poll found 85% of Brits want retailers to cut plastic packaging.

“Shoppers are now more environmentally conscious than ever before and savvy manufacturers across the board are looking for fresh ways to appeal to them whilst improving their own sustainability record,” says Martin Leeming, CEO of disruptor packaging firm TrakRap. “Most commonly, in recent times, this has been done by cutting plastic but often this isn’t an effective move. If businesses are serious about reducing the environmental impact of their packaging, they need to minimise its carbon footprint – the main cause of climate change – not the material used.

“When eliminating plastic, businesses often switch to cardboard which is heralded as more environmentally friendly because it is biodegradable,” says Martin. “But what they overlook is that it has a huge carbon footprint because of the enormous amounts of energy required to create it. To produce corrugated cardboard, trees need to be harvested, shipped to pulp mills, pulped, formed, pressed, dried and rolled, before being sent to corrugating plants and made into cardboard. Then, when the cardboard decomposes, carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures. People are simply swapping packaging materials so they can claim they have reduced plastic, when the reality is that they are often doubling their environmental impact in doing so.”

But, you might reasonably ask, if corrugated cardboard isn’t green enough for punters, what is?! “If packaging decisions are to be truly sustainable, one method that could be effective is to make it compulsory to print CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalent] figures on both primary and secondary packs,” suggests Martin.

“On the primary pack it would allow consumers to make sustainable shopping choices, in much the same way they do with calories and fat content. On the secondary pack it would aid sustainable corporate decision making. This idea has been mooted before and after initial trials companies quickly moved away from it claiming the process was too time-consuming and costly. However corporate and social consciences have shifted greatly since then and consumers are far more educated. If we are to implement truly sustainable packaging and avoid dangerous climate change, the time to restart this is now.”

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