The EU is in danger of missing the point as it reviews policy on packaging. Product protection – including tissue products – and overall resource efficiency are much more important than a marginal increase in recycling rates.
Last year, the European Commission reviewed its policy on packaging. The focus was almost exclusively on what should be done with packaging at the end of its life, and it largely overlooked the role of packaging throughout the supply chain. The new proposals that followed also ignored the fact that 10 times more resources are used to make products than to make the packaging that protects them. They therefore underestimate the need to allow sufficient flexibility for companies to choose the most appropriate packaging for their supply chain, whether that packaging is recyclable or not.
These changing trends are important for the tissue industry. Fitness for purpose (product protection and overall resource efficiency) is much more important than a marginal increase in recycling rates. The Commission’s approach is understandable because policymakers, in common with people, are largely unaware of the stresses and strains that products have to endure on their journey from production to retailer. In many ways by the time a product arrives at a store its packaging has done much of its job.
Many people don’t consciously notice packaging until they have used the product. So the first time they become really aware of it is when it is empty and needs to be recycled or discarded. However in recent years there has been a shift in attitudes. People are now talking about the need to conserve resources, the importance of reducing waste, as well as reducing energy consumption, all of which are key aspects for all sectors that deal with packaging to take into consideration.
It’s good to see a holistic approach receiving so much attention but packaging manufacturers and retailers have been doing all these things for many years – you could say they are our raison d’etre. It’s only a shame that – even now – most people still dismiss packaging as a waste of materials.
The things to remember:
- Without packaging consumers wouldn’t be able to buy well over 90% of the food they currently do… all tissues, liquids, powders, granules, all imported foods like coffee and oranges, let alone fragile, costly things like computers and televisions. This very much applies to tissues.
- Companies need to be profitable and packaging materials cost money and reduce profits, so no company is going to intentionally use packaging it doesn’t need. Companies have a strong commercial incentive to do more with less.
- All companies need to meet the public and policymakers’ expectations that their products and services will fulfill needs at the lowest environmental and social impact. One way to show this is to make continuous improvements to products. The compressed tissue box is a good example.
Compression technology has enabled a shallow box to contain the same number of tissues as a larger standard box. It’s also a win/win for a company because making more efficient use of resources (materials, energy, water) makes business sense.
Packaging isn’t just chosen to help manufacturers maximise profits – it is designed to help consumers too. There are dozens of innovations that have been introduced without fanfare but which have benefited the environment and made a huge difference to consumers.
Take the development of detergent liquitabs and tablets to deliver a measured dose and prevent consumers using more than needed. The tablets need more packaging but the overall environmental impact of cleaning clothes is reduced.
Take also the gradual light-weighting of bottles and cans so they use less material in manufacture and less fuel for delivery to the retailer, or the increasing availability of single person-sized helpings, including single pack toilet roll or tissue products which are increasingly popular in certain parts of the world. They match the demographic trends we are seeing as more people are living alone (and even within families eating alone). And of course there are large sized packs too, for bigger families.
There are re-sealable packs for foods like cheese, to protect the cheese once opened, and stop it drying out. There are calorie-counted packs to help reduce waste and waist-lines, ready prepared chilled and frozen meals for busy people, with another amazing innovation that we take totally for granted: packaging that can go from freezer to oven.
Some people object to wrapped fruit and vegetables and that’s their choice. Most shops offer a loose version too. But by choosing ‘loose’ you have not significantly reduced the packaging needed, because to get grapes from Israel, bananas from the West Indies or even carrots from a nearby farm, strong protective transport packaging is needed. Wastage rates from a big box of items all tumbled together are higher than from pre-packed bags or trays. And fruits and vegetables that have been packaged are fresher than those that have not.
Companies are constantly looking for ways to reduce and improve packaging. But there’s a balance to be struck: reduce the packaging too far and the contents end up wasted.
There’s no single ‘best’ kind of packaging – it needs to be suited to the product. It isn’t appropriate to pack drinks in a paper bag, or meringues in a glass jar. Heavy glass is the only way to pack champagne though – and paper bags are perfect for mushrooms.
Choosing and designing appropriate packaging for each product is a science, and focusing on a single aspect, such as making the packaging recyclable after use, can badly distort the decision-making process.
What we have long realised, and what many others still don’t seem to have realised is that packaging is already doing those things everyone is now calling for: avoiding food waste and conserving resources and energy.
Packaging is part of our daily life and cannot be viewed in isolation. Don’t see the packaging in your bin as a sign of failure – consider how a carrot, tissues, biscuit, kitchen knife or glass vase could possibly have reached you without it.
And then consider how many resources of every kind would have been wasted if the carrot, tissues, biscuit, knife or vase had arrived damaged, broken or inedible: all of the labour, fertiliser, water and energy that went into growing or making the goods and getting them to us would have been wasted.
Set those resources against the few grams of packaging that protects the products and enables their handling and it’s obvious that packaging reduces waste.
Trade-offs between product and packaging
Trade-offs between a product and its packaging and between packaging materials are a common challenge for manufacturers and retailers. Take the example of a company which sells fruit-based smoothies. It currently uses single layer PET bottles because they are light weight (so have fuel-saving benefits in distribution) and recyclable.
The problem is the shelf-life of the smoothie is so short that product wastage is unacceptably high. The company has three choices: it can add preservatives to the drink, but then could not make ‘fresh, nothing added’ claims: it can apply a thin coating to the PET bottle to create a better barrier to the air so the product lasts longer but the bottles will not then be recyclable; or it can switch to glass bottles which will increase the number of lorries needed to deliver the product and make them heavier and less convenient for drinking ‘on the go’.
Consumers want foods, without preservative and additives, so the company risks losing its market share if it changes the product.
Coating the bottle offers the most benefit in overall resource terms. Reducing the waste of the fruit has the biggest benefit because of the resources invested in growing, harvesting the fruit and preparing the juice.
The ‘right’ answer involves making the right decision for that individual product in that market.
Manufacturers will continue to innovate provided they are able to choose whatever material or packaging makes the best contribution to the resource-efficiency of the whole supply system.
Some innovations enable packaging to be removed completely. Laser labelling can replace traditional paper labels on fruit. It removes pigment from a very thin top layer of the fruit skin and applies a tiny amount of liquid to inscribe text and images.
Other innovations need more packaging. Superglue can dry out after the first use and clog the opening so the remainder of the glue gets thrown away. Smaller single-use packs prevent waste of the glue but use more packaging. One thing is certain. For environmental and commercial reasons, manufacturers and retailers will continue to innovate to reduce both resource consumption and environmental impacts.
Consumers too have to play their part by buying just what they need, choosing appropriate portions and understanding that the vast majority of packaging is there to help reduce waste.
In the next few months, as the European institutions discuss future policy on packaging, manufacturers and retailers have a good opportunity to explain to policymakers what packaging does for society. They need also to explain why policy needs to be flexible enough to enable manufacturers to use packaging that will make supply chains more resource-efficient.
Jane Bickerstaffe is director of INCPEN, the Industry Council for research on packaging and the environment. It was established 40 years ago by a group of manufacturers and retailers who pooled resources to do research to understand the environmental and social impacts of packaging and to identify where improvements could be made.