16th Jul 2020
Zoe Brimelow, Brand Director at Duo UK, discusses that rather than demonising plastic, we should embrace the material for its benefits, focusing on packaging design and how bioplastic use can improve sustainability.
Until recently, many brands and companies have been distancing themselves from plastic packaging, claiming sustainability was at the top of the agenda. Consumers have been saturated by commercial misinformation which has led to overwhelming confusion and an unfair demonisation of the material, without considering how its performance properties can be harnessed as part of a sustainable packaging strategy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the world to change the way we look at plastic as a packaging material, taking it from a tainted product to one with many beneficial properties that put health and protection first – the reason it has been the preferred packaging material for the medical industry for many years.
According to research company FMCG Gurus, 40% of consumers globally now have a more positive perception of plastic packaging due to coronavirus. This monumental shift shows consumers’ views on plastic have changed, at least for now, prioritising hygienically wrapped items or goods bought online that can be delivered directly to homes.
As we begin to emerge from the global pandemic, there is a real opportunity for companies to learn valuable lessons from rapidly changing consumer behaviour, taking time to re-evaluate their packaging strategy and consider the benefits that plastic can offer as a packaging solution.
A DESIGN-LED APPROACH TO SUSTAINABILITY
Earlier this year, Duo carried out research with 100 senior retail and business professionals to determine the trends, challenges and opportunities for packaging in the next decade. The results showed that 33% believe the greatest opportunity to improve sustainability in the packaging lifecycle lies at the beginning – starting at the R&D and design stage.
Businesses should be scrutinising existing packaging products and their lifecycle to determine where environmental and cost efficiencies can be made.
One item can be handled 20 times or more in the ecommerce supply chain, so it’s critical to ensure that changes to the manufacture of a packaging product or process do not present a negative environmental knock-on effect during storage, handling and distribution.
When looking at product design, businesses should consider the volume of plastic content used within the product and where efficiencies can be made.
Often, this can be achieved by resizing the packaging or using a super-strength blend polythene that’s thinner but doesn’t compromise on durability, delivering both cost savings and environmental benefits.
This is an area we’re certainly going to see a greater focus on post-coronavirus and in the future. Duo’s research shows that the importance of ‘type of packaging material’ in influencing packaging strategies will rise from 45% for companies now, to 57% in the next decade.
An overwhelming majority – 43% – of companies also want to see the most innovation in packaging happening in ‘materials’ in the next decade.
CHOICES IN PLASTIC
To achieve this, retailers should be questioning if it is viable to look at new sustainable and renewable materials such as Duo’s GreenPE – a thermoplastic resin made from sustainably derived sugarcane that produces a high-quality material that’s lightweight yet durable.
Each kilogram of GreenPE produced saves 2.78kg of CO2 when compared to the production of conventional fossil-based polyethylene.
Another design consideration is the percentage of recycled polythene used in the packaging product. With the Plastic Packaging Tax due to be introduced in April 2022, companies will pay a rate of £200 per tonne on plastic packaging which does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. This will apply to plastic packaging that has been manufactured in or imported into the UK.
There is already a huge demand for good quality polythene that can be recycled and reused at a high percentage to create new products without affecting the material’s performance, and this will only increase as we get closer to the introduction of the tax.
Designing packaging for the supply chain is another area where businesses should scrutinise the effectiveness of any packaging product.
Reducing the size of or removing paper labels from plastic packaging and printing information directly onto the item reduces contamination and will create a better quality of recycled material that can be reused as part of a circular approach.
Design features, such as a second glue strip that allows the original packaging to be used again for returns, support a reverse logistics strategy and allows businesses to gain value back from waste packaging material as part of a closed-loop recycling system.
BRANDS THAT ARE LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Online retailer Thrift+ recently adopted GreenPE mailing bags for its business, which sells consumers’ second-hand clothes via its website.
The Thrift+ mailing bag design is paperless, as paper labels have been replaced by unique QR codes that are printed directly onto the mailing bag. This eradicates contamination of the plastic so it can be recycled as part of a closed-loop system to deliver high-quality polythene that can be used to make new products.
Premium lifestyle brand Joules also adopted a forward-thinking approach to its packaging strategy with GreenPE as part of the business’ sustainability commitment.
Contributing to our Future of Packaging report, Claire Lockyer, packaging design and production manager at Joules, said: “Retailers and manufacturers have a responsibility to look at the ways in which they can reduce excessive packaging. It’s the right thing to do and is something consumers are increasingly demanding.
“We are on a journey to use more circular and renewable options throughout our business. This can only be achieved if we take an open-minded view about what we can do differently and then how innovations can work pragmatically.
“The implementation of the GreenPE mail bags is a case in point and we are taking a similar approach to other initiatives, where we think about sustainability first and then look at how changes can work for both us as a company and our customers.”
According to FMCG Gurus’ Covid-19 research, 55% of consumers felt “more concerned” about the environment than before the pandemic, while our own research found that over half of respondents believe that ‘reducing environmental impact’ will be the most important factor defining packaging strategies in the next 10 years.
While sustainability may have taken a temporary back seat during Covid-19, we must continue to make decisive steps in our approach to packaging design to maintain momentum.
Responding to changing consumer behaviour and demonstrating its beneficial properties will give consumers greater reassurance that plastic is a valuable commodity and should be treated as such.
As featured in Inside Packaging