8th Jun 2020
End-of-life options and developments in material type – such as bioplastics – are set to influence packaging strategies during the next decade. Zoe Brimelow discusses the findings of a recent packaging research study.
In recent years, there’s been an overpowering focus on plastics packaging. This has created commercial misinformation and a growing consumer confusion, which has led to the demonisation of plastics. According to BrandWatch, conversations around plastics across social media increased by almost 300 per cent from 2017 to 2018. This ‘plastic paranoia’ is one of the key factors that Duo UK identified in its latest research.
Government initiatives and the policies we’ve seen to date are geared towards a circular economy dominated by end of life options and types of packaging material. Our research supports this, showing that 61 per cent of businesses believe ‘end of life options’ will be the most important factor influencing packaging strategies in the next decade. This marks a considerable change from current levels of 43 per cent.
While this is a positive shift – and demonstrates that businesses are taking responsibility for where their packaging ends up – a more holistic ‘lifecycle’ view of packaging is what’s required to create a truly sustainable approach to packaging strategies over the next decade. The reality is that the infrastructure is not yet in place across the UK for consumers to efficiently recycle all of the plastics packaging that’s part of their daily lives.
Take it back to the beginning
The real opportunity for companies to improve sustainability in the packaging lifecycle lies at the beginning – starting at the R&D and design stage, rather than an unbalanced focus on where it’s going to end up.
This is an area we’re certainly going to see more focus on as our research shows the importance of ‘type of packaging material’ in influencing packaging strategies will rise from 45 per cent for companies now, to 57 per cent in the next decade. An overwhelming majority (43 per cent) of companies also want to see the most innovation in packaging happening in ‘materials’ in the next decade.
As a packaging manufacturer, when we approach any project we firstly determine the products needs and identify its handling. Packaging should protect the product against loss or damage, facilitate easy transportation and communicate relevant information. Packaging can be handled 20 times or more in the ecommerce supply chain. It is critical therefore that retailers and brands are working together with their team and supply chain partners to ensure that changes to the manufacture of a packaging item or process do not present a negative environmental knock-on effect i.e. during storage, handling and distribution. Making a change to material in isolation will not make a brand ‘sustainable’ – it is just one element.
We’re already seeing this shift in the importance of material in customers that have moved to GreenPE mailing bags – a thermoplastic sustainable resin, made from sugar cane, that offers an alternative to traditional polyethylene. The raw ingredient, sugarcane, is a water efficient crop that captures carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. For each kilogram of green plastics produced using this method, 2.85kg of carbon dioxide is saved.
In the trading period between October and December 2019, when online retailers and logistics firms typically fulfil orders for Black Friday and Christmas trading periods, we sold over four million Green PE mailing bags. This is a 243 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2018 and as a result saved the equivalent of around 2,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The simplicity of this sustainability messaging is proving a hit with retailers.
The right material for the right application
Our research as part of the Future of Packaging report also highlighted that most companies (34 per cent) want to see advances in packaging materials in the next decade happening in ‘compostable and biodegradable materials’. An eagerness for these types of materials is being driven by the demonisation of plastics. However, it could end up doing more harm than good. Hype and excitement around buzz terms like ‘biodegradable’ can mean the wrong choices are made.
For a lot of companies, compostable and biodegradable packaging are not, at present, viable options for packaging at scale or perhaps if a product has a long shelf life. Compostable packaging can also contaminate the recycling chain, which in turn means more waste going to landfill, rather than being eligible to be recycled and reused to create a new product.
Bioplastics offer benefits to companies that are looking to replicate the performance of traditional polythenes, but with the environmental benefit of using materials that are derived from renewable sources.
Customers are right to demand new types of packaging material and compostable or biodegradable materials shouldn’t be disregarded if they are the right solution. However, it’s important to cut through the confusion created by which materials are labelled as ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’, to ensure that you’re working with the right materials for your product, its application and the product’s lifecycle.
Educate and communicate
Confusing anti-plastics messaging is having a detrimental effect, both on the end customer and the companies trying to respond to their demands. It’s pressuring companies into making decisions without all of the facts. Government should be aiming to provide companies and consumers with more informative and balanced messaging. It’s not helpful to simply say one material is bad for the environment.
Companies need to address the consumer confusion on plastic and leverage this opportunity to educate about the ‘good’ plastics that preserve products, offer convenience and can be recycled, versus ‘bad’ plastics that add little to the consumer experience. Without doubt, clearer communication is needed to inform companies so they can help customers to change behaviour and end this culture of plastics paranoia.
Businesses also need the support of the government and the investment in the infrastructure to ensure consumers have the appropriate recycling facilities available for all materials to create societal change and better habits. One simply does not work without the other.
As featured in Plastics in Packaging