Waste of breath?

By Laurence Gibbons

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Packaging Sustainability Packaging and labeling

Effective disposal of waste packaging is critical
Effective disposal of waste packaging is critical
Communicating with consumers is one route to more sustainable packaging, reports Laurence Gibbons

Many experts in the packaging sector believe that the biggest barrier they face to ensure food and drink products are packaged sustainably is educating the consumer on where and how to discard the package after use.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that when Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) released its corporate responsibility and sustainability report in May it focused heavily on what consumers could be doing and how to understand and ultimately change their recycling behaviour.

At the report's launch, CCE's sustainability director Joe Franses told FoodManufacture.co.uk it had focused on what the consumer could do to ensure resources were recycled and re-used. "We are working very closely with our suppliers on our ability to use more recycled content. But we can't just say to a supplier we want to use more recycled content,"​ claims Franses. "Because that content is directly linked to what happens in people's homes. It's about getting that resource back, so it's intrinsically linked."

CCE launched a study with the University of Exeter of 10 British households to understand why, despite 76% of people claiming they frequently recycle, rates were much lower.

But should a major corporation really be focusing on what the consumer can do, rather than what the firm itself could be doing? And should others follow its lead? Or should they focus on cutting their environmental impact throughout their products' life cycles and seek ways to limit the amount of packaging they use?

Richard Hands, chief executive of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment UK, believes firms should copy CCE's example. "It is a positive move. CCE has a great deal of influence on the market, anything that can impact on the body of knowledge consumers have over how to recycle should be welcomed."

Most food and drink manufacturers have made some progress to ensure their products go into sustainably produced packages and they should now focus on consumer engagement, according to Hands. "Consumers need to have faith that the package will be properly recycled. They expect manufacturers to have resourced it responsibly, but if they don't know where to dispose of it, it's useless,"​ he claims.

Andy Dawe, head of the food and drink programme at the government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme says the industry has undertaken a number of initiatives, within the Courtauld Commitment that have contributed to a rise in 'green packaging' claims.

The Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the carbon and wider environmental impact of the food sector. It supports the UK government's goal of zero waste to landfill and the objectives of the Climate Change Act 2008 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

Dawe encourages brands to communicate this information via on-pack labelling.

"This​ [The Courtauld Commitment] results in us using smarter packaging, so at the end of the day we are using fewer valuable resources," ​claims Dawe. "Brands, retailers and manufacturers are making the consumer aware of these improvements, which we'd always encourage."

So, there appears to be a clear case for CCE's consumer-driven sustainability strategy.

Full lifecycle analysis

However, not everyone sees consumer engagement as the biggest challenge to sustainably packaging products. Dow Chemical Company, which makes plastics for use in packaging, believes consumers will never feel compelled to become experts in subjects that don't directly impact them. Firms need to grasp how to maximise their sustainability performance over a product's entire lifecycle.

Dow's global sustainability leader for performance packaging, Jeff Wooster, says: "Firms should make it easy for consumers by striving to design and use systems that maximise sustainability performance across a product's lifecycle, regardless of what action the consumer may take."

Jim Ballantyne, sales manager at plastics recycler Lexus, urged manufacturers to start their lifecycle analysis by making sure their packages were made of single materials and marked clearly to help consumers know where to send them after use. "Food manufacturers need to move away from having multi-material packaging and have a clear logo in the consumer's face, so that they know what material goes into the package and how to recycle it,"​ says Ballantyne.

Speakers at last month's 'Packaging Innovation vs Sustainability: Friend or Foes?' webinar agreed that careful sourcing of materials, effective package design and recovery were the three core elements to packaging sustainably.

"Sourcing materials​ [responsibly] and knowing the impact on the planet of those materials is important,"​ says Minal Mistry, senior manager of sustainability at GreenBlue, a US business that aims to provide firms with the science and resources to make products more sustainable.

"Manufacturers should replace fossil-based polymers with bio-based polymers,"​ he argues. He encourages full lifecycle assessments to be undertaken of the environmental impact of products – whether the packaging is made from metal, glass, paper, plastic or compostable material – during their development phase. "You need to consider the initial package, secondary package and transport package and make sure your product has a 'how to recycle' label,"​ he adds.

"Tell the consumer what material is included in the packaging – is it paper or card? Does it have a plastic tray or bag or window?"

He adds that firms should look at how businesses such as Kellogg designs its boxes as an example of good sustainable packaging. Kellogg spells it out clearly to the end user by displaying 'paper box' and 'plastic bag' on the box so consumers know which bin to put which part of the packaging in.

Once firms have carried out this lifecycle assessment they should make sure the packaging design indicates they have considered a product's environmental impact, says brand and packaging design firm Interbrand executive director Jack Hinkel. "Materials are important, but it's the lifecycle of the product that's really important; how it's produced, shipped and recycled. Consumers will pay more for the brand if the values are clearly there."

Innovative materials

There is an endless list of firms using renewable and recycled materials. For example, SIG Combibloc's latest carton innovation – The EcoPlusPack – cuts down carbon dioxide emissions by 28% compared with a one-litre pack, thanks to the use of a new cardboard composite. Elsewhere, Edinburgh-based eco-packaging firm Vegware uses bio-plastics derived from corn starch to create 100% biodegradable food and drink packaging. With its product, packaging can be mixed up with food waste and sent for composting – removing the need to rely on consumers recycling.

Meanwhile, Nampak Plastics has created the world's first four-pint milk bottle containing 30% recycled high-density polyethylene; Adnams, has light-weighted its beer bottles; Kenco has increased the number its refill packs for coffee labelled as 'eco' packs; and Tesco has labelled its own-label 'eco' products. All of these examples form part of the Courtauld Commitment.

CCE boasts 25% recycled PET plastic is used in all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and that half a billion bottles have been processed at its recycled PET joint venture with ECO Plastics since it was opened in May 2012.

But some say food and drink manufacturers should move away from concentrating their efforts on materials. One such person is Susie Stitzel, solutions manager at global packaging design specialist Esko.

She claims one effective way for firms to ensure they have packaged products sustainably is to reduce the amount of packaging by removing transport packaging and producing retail-ready packaging (RRP). "RRP benefits brand recognition, it is easy to transport and saves waste and transport packaging,"​ she says.

"Kraft had the idea to reduce the use of packaging for its Philadelphia cream cheese range. The changes it made helped create 800,000lb​ [about 364t] of paper savings a year."

Kraft did this in 2011 by coming up with an easy-to- open cardboard package that stores 12 blocks of cheese individually wrapped in a foil liner. These boxes are transported from the manufacturer and placed straight on shelf, making it easy to transport, open and replenish, claims Stitzel. She says this example reflects the surge in the interest of RRP that began in the UK in 2005, but is now taking off around the world.

However, not everyone is so keen on RRP. Although recognising a "considerable drive"​ across Europe for RRP and the "significant" environmental, supply chain and financial benefits it brings, Jane Gorick, md of pallet pool operator La Palette Rouge (LPR), claims that reducing packaging does not come without costs.

"While primary packaging costs may be reduced through light-weighting innovations, the overall cost of shipping the product could go up,"​ says Gorick. "It is important to realise that you can only go so far in limiting packaging before the product is exposed to the elements."

Wooster adds that, regardless of packaging being shelf-ready or not, it needs first and foremost to protect the product and minimise the use of precious resources along the entire production chain to be sustainable.

"We don't manufacture packaging for packaging's sake, we manufacture packaging so that we can protect and transport food from the manufacturer to the consumer."

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