The Packaging Series: Innovation
September 23, 2020
a diagram of sustainability

In our recent blog on food packaging and pollution we explored the materials that form the majority of food packaging products and evaluated their pollutive impact on the planet. It became clear that this issue is complicated and far from the good/bad binary that is often used to simplify discussions around packaging’s impact. As awareness of these complications has increased, the packaging industry has embraced innovation and change, working to create a more sustainable future.

The concept of a circular economy has gained popularity as a way out of the current state of global packaging pollution, and used in combination with reduction, re-use and recycling, we believe this will bring about much needed change in the sector.

The Circular Economy

Our current mode of living is predominantly a linear economy that drives economic growth through the extraction, use and misuse of natural resources. A circular economy breaks the current link between economic success and the depletion of natural resources and designs out waste and pollution in order to sustain natural resources and regenerate the planet’s health. It moves in a circle that keeps products in use over and over.

There are many reasons for adopting a circular economy. Here are three key ones to consider – the three P’s of sustainability:

  1. Profit. With resources finite, a linear economy will inevitably lead to greater scarcity and therefore higher prices for economic inputs. With this in mind, a move to a circular economy will help to maintain lower prices and therefore profitability for businesses.
  2. Planet. It is clear that natural resources are limited, which makes our current reliance on a linear economy not viable in the future. Our current misuse of natural resources has also had an adverse impact on the environment, and recovery depends on moving towards a circular economy.
  3. People. A circular economy will protect communities who are currently feeling the impact of a linear economy: flooding, toxic waste and drought. It will also ensure safer and more sustainable working conditions due to its elimination of harmful materials and emphasis on regeneration.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

This phrase is central to the development of a circular economy. Already popular amongst environmental movements, the three words define how we must approach waste in future. Political pressure, for example the closure of China and India for waste dumping, and consumer demand, is making the mantra necessary, as the West is now unable to simply dump waste on other countries.

What does this mean for packaging?

When looking at the ‘three P’s’ again, the direct impact on packaging is that:

  1. Profit. The packaging must be profitable for the manufacturer and affordable for the consumer. The cost of the packaging
  2. Planet. The overall footprint of the packaging must be low in terms of carbon footprint, its circularity index and its emissions.
  3. People. The product must be user-friendly in terms of transport, storage, use and disposal/re-use. It must also adhere to legal regulations.

In the context of packaging, a circular economy means that packaging will not be single use or made from materials or processes that are harmful to the planet and its inhabitants. To create the necessary solution that can meet all these demands, there will need to be an emphasis on the re-use and reduction of waste designed into packaging from the offset at the design stage. We are already seeing many innovations in the industry moving towards this new reality, using a range of different concepts.

Re-Using Packaging

To combat our love of single use packaging the most obvious product to create is reusable packaging. Until the 1950’s this model was a widely accepted norm (think of old-style milk bottles), but the rapid expansion in plastic bred a love affair with single-use packaging designed for ease of use and disposal.

Now that consumer behaviour has moved away from re-usable products it will take a concerted effort to move behaviour back again. However, in recent years there has been a steep rise in popularity of reusable products such as water bottles, coffee cups, cutlery and straws. This signals that consumers are realising the impact of single use packaging and willing to pay a little more for a product that can be used again and again in a circular manner. Businesses which were traditionally reliant on disposable packaging have also supported this trend, with many retail outlets now offering water refill stations and discounts for using reusable coffee cups.

Case Study: Loop Packaging

Loop is a company born of leading recycling company TerraCycle and has designed packaging to be re-used. Working with many major brands, the company’s strapline is ‘your favourite products, waste-free’. They have developed packaging that is built to last and designed to withstand at least 10 cycles of re-use, designed to be easily washed through low energy cleaning systems. At end of life, each piece of packaging will be recycled in a way that is most appropriate and sustainable. In this way, Loop encompasses ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ into their business and makes it easier for others to adopt this model too.

With the backing of major multinationals such as Coca Cola, Nestle, Unilever, and Proctor & Gamble, Loop’s vision of a world without single-use packaging is proving to be popular and we have seen more similar models coming to market, such as Good Club and Splosh.

Reducing packaging

Another approach that will bring us towards a circular economy is reducing the amount of packaging we use. Through adopting reusable packaging, this is already done to some extent, though there are other ways we can reduce the amount of packaging we use. Packaging makes up a fifth of our overall waste production, meaning if we reduce the amount of packaging we use we will by default also decrease the amount of waste we produce. In an example of this, The White Company implemented a new packing system which resulting in a 50% reduction of cardboard used to ship products, parcel size reduction of 30% (leading to lower CO2 emissions), lower void space, and replacing tape with glue.

Case study: The Cortauld Commitment

Reduction in packaging cannot come only from consumers. Manufacturers must be included in this drive for change, as they have the ability to dramatically change the amount of packaging that we use every day. In order to encourage organisations to change their packaging policies, agreements such as The Cortauld Commitment can be useful. The Cortauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement launched by Wrap, an NGO committed to building a circular economy, which aims to improve resource efficiency an reduce waste in the UK grocery sector.

The commitment completed its first phase in 2009 and focused on new solutions that would avoid primary packaging ending up in landfill. Over 4 years, the agreement resulted in 1.2 million tonnes of food and packaging waste from being wasted, representing a saving of £1.8 billion and 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (equivalent to 500,000 round-the-world flights). Changes made by manufacturers include reducing the weight of wine bottles to reduce glass usage, reducing the amount of cardboard to package pizzas to cut 87% of packaging and introducing trayless bags for chickens which reduced freight emissions by 140,000kg of CO2.

The second phase of the Cortauld Commitment (2010-2012) built on phase 1 to also include secondary and tertiary packaging and supply chain waste, reducing 1.7 million tonnes of waste, saving £3.1 billion and 4.8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Supply chain waste and increased shelf life (thus reducing food waste) was achieved through more efficiencies being introduced into delivery and storage systems, reduction of manufacturing waste and the introduction of ‘fridge packs’.

The third phase of the agreement will seek to build on the first two phases and focus on packaging design. As mentioned previously, it is by considering waste implications early on and introducing sustainability in the design stage that we can most effectively bring about change and move towards a circular economy. This phase will focus on the reduction of packaging, an increase in the amount of recycled materials used and the introduction of specifically designed packaging with a view to reuse.

Recycling Packaging

To circle back (pun intended) to plastics, this has been the focus of discussions on recycling for many years. The many benefits of plastic as a resilient, cheap, light and flexible product are many, but to make these benefits worthwhile we must use plastic’s advantages by keeping it in use rather than using it in a linear economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently reported that if we do nothing about our use of plastic and its waste, the volume of plastic in the market by 2040 will double.

So, what are the solutions? One is recycling plastic that already exists in our supply chains to eliminate the chances of that plastic entering the environment as waste. Gradually, this would reduce the amount of virgin plastic in use down to zero, eliminating all the associated damage to the environment from packaging production. There are also emerging techniques, such as chemical recycling, that reduce the amount of emissions needed to recycle. However, this method has its own negative connotations and a major barrier to seeing recycling as the solve-all solution is the fact that not all plastic is recyclable. Certain types have no alternative but to end up in an incinerator, in landfill, or shipped off to other countries to deal with. Again, this is why designing packaging to be easily reduced, reused and recycled is so essential. As this is such a huge topic, we will be creating another blog about plastic recycling.

Multinational companies have made pledges to increase the amount of recycled materials they will use, for example Biffa announced that they would be supporting Nestle Waters UK to make every Buxton water bottle from 100% recycled plastic. Commitments of this kinds are important in setting an example, but care needs to be taken to ensure that commitments are followed with action, and not set back with failed pledges and moved goalposts. There is also lots of work to be done in small communities. Some charities and NGOs are working hard to increase the recycling capabilities in communities that are currently suffering from waste pollution.

Case Study: Waste Aid

Waste Aid is a charity that works with communities and partners to develop waste collection and recycling programmes that build a cleaner and healthier future. Founded by waste management professionals, the charity shares its knowledge where it is most needed: with the 1 in 3 people globally who do not have access to decent waste management solutions. Their work is an essential part of any conversation about packaging pollution and its solutions, as poorer communities who often bear the brunt of pollution are often left out of any debate.

The charity works to educate communities on the importance of waste management for health, hygiene, environment and wellbeing and help to set up and implement community clean-ups and waste surveys. From this work, they can then design the most appropriate waste management solutions and introduce recycling, reduction and re-use of waste materials, including using waste to make new products such as paving tiles.

Looking Ahead: Further Innovation

As awareness and popularity of circular economy concepts increases, we are excited to see what further innovation will develop. At Czarnikow, we regularly invite other specialist organisations in order to discuss innovation in the food and beverage sector, and many of our guests have been mentioned in this blog. We have learnt a lot from these exchanges and have been able to move into packaging with more confidence and knowledge. Our purpose is ‘to exert a positive economic and sustainable influence in our food, beverage and energy supply chains’, and we are committed to support that with action.

Author: Carys Wright