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The packaging debate – thoughts from Women in Packaging UK co-founder Jo Stephenson

The packaging debate – thoughts from Women in Packaging UK co-founder Jo Stephenson

Well what a hectic few months it’s been for the packaging industry in the media! From a ‘latte tax’ to heralding the return of deposit return systems to Iceland and its plastic free aisles, it feels like packaging is becoming the problem child in society.

Having spoken to several of our Women in Packaging UK members in the last few weeks, it’s quite clear that there is a lot of consumer misunderstanding about the role of packaging in a modern economy. But also, that most of these beliefs are fed by weak government communications and frenzied media outlets jumping on sound bites and social media videos.

In this blog I just wanted to capture my thoughts, which I hope represent a little balance based on reality, to help educate and eradicate some of the negativity out there.

Packaging does not create marine litter, humans do

As I’ve heard from several peers recently, packaging does not jump out of the back of a lorry and in to the sea. It is littered by humans and washed in to the sea through various routes.

If the argument is that plastic packaging is the cause because it lasts ‘thousands of years’ then please take a look at the amount of metal, rope and discarded household goods in the sea.

No litter is acceptable. And yes, the durability of plastic is a problem but please let’s not target a single substrate as the cause.

It’s no secret that I’ve worked extensively in the plastics industry. What amazes me is the lack of story around the recycling of single use PET bottles in the UK. I worked for a plastic tray thermoforming company supplying the chilled protein market. Their products where manufactured from 95% recycled material, whose source was the bottles that are being castigated. It’s one of the few ‘closed loop’ processes in the UK recycling system alongside PE milk containers and yet this story seems to be completely missed.

Can we drink water from a tap? Of course we can – but it’s not the total doom and gloom picture that is presented in the media.

Packaging is ‘a necessary evil’

Modern packaging is designed to protect goods in the supply chain. Valuable energy and resources are used to produce the product. Protective packaging ensures the goods reach their final destination in perfect condition with little or no waste. How is that a bad thing? And, surely it’s even more important when we consider that we are will soon live in a world that houses 9 billion+ consumers, who all need feeding, while the food waste scandal is dropping down the priority list relative to packaging.

INCPEN estimates packaging only represents 3-5% of the total carbon footprint of many food products in relation to cradle to grave assessments. Refrigeration and cooking of food contributes far more energy use and carbon than the packaging itself, so the argument in itself is totally disproportionate.

Packaging is actually a green technology (I’m stealing this from an old colleague, Alan Davey) in its role in protecting and preserving goods. In fact, waste rates climb dramatically when it’s not used.  Alan did a calculation when we worked together, to demonstrate that if the average UK family used one less tank of fuel per year in their car, the single carbon saving would represent their entire year’s usage of plastic packaging. Surely this type of argument is far more powerful in creating behaviour change than slamming drinks bottles and drinking straws?

Just to see the fun side of this argument – imagine a world without packaging – courtesy of Elipso, the French packaging industry association.

All packaging materials have environmental advantages and disadvantages

The reason why so many different materials are used in the packaging of goods is because they all have different functions and benefits depending on the product being packed. Naturally they all have different ‘green’ credentials too.

There are a number of sustainability angles you can consider when designing packaging – initial resource use, carbon footprint, water footprint, recyclability, use of natural resources, use of fossil fuels, recycled material content, compostability etc. etc.

Some materials are very lightweight and therefore have a low carbon footprint. However, they can’t be recycled. Others are from natural resources but soak up moisture so can’t be used easily in moist, chilled or frozen applications. Others are fossil fuel based but highly protective, durable and strong for sensitive product applications.  There are trade offs wherever you look.

My point is that there is no right or wrong. It simply depends on what you are trying to achieve in protecting and preserving goods and as long as the primary design is optimised i.e. uses the minimum amount of material possible and is designed for efficient processing and suitable for the supply chain it needs to endure, then the packaging is fit for purpose. Suggesting that eradicating packaging is the way forward means product waste will simply be sky high instead.

Let me be clear, I’m certainly not suggesting the packaging industry is perfect by any means. There are still atrocious examples of unnecessary packaging out there but I can speak for the majority of packaging leaders brands and retailers in the UK who are proud of their track record of light weighting, designing for the environment, recycling, minimising material use and generally stepping up to the plate.

Investment in a single recycling infrastructure and yes, incineration, could change the game in the UK

My belief is that the angst consumers feel about packaging today actually stems from their frustration around recycling. The lack of investment in a coherent packaging recycling infrastructure and strategy in the UK is causing untold misery for the entire supply chain, from manufacturer or producer through to consumer.  (I exclude metal and glass from this statement as those sectors are working fairly well in comparison to paper and plastics).

What can be recycled in one area is different to another (I hear that there are over 200 different recycling systems and processes across the UK local authorities today) and combine that with confusing recycling messages on pack and the consumer becomes irritated very quickly.

Even for packaging manufacturers trying to do the right thing – they develop packaging based on one set of rules, to find they don’t apply in a different region. This is simply unacceptable.

Is recycling the be all and end all? No but it goes a long way to developing a sustainable circular economy. We, as consumers, are also being deceived about our recycling rates in the UK. We actually ship vast amounts of waste abroad to China and Asia and count these shipments in our recycling statistics!?!

The Chinese have finally woken up and will now only take ‘valuable’ waste where they have recyclate shortages. We therefore have a problem, as our ‘recycling rate’ will be statistically declining because we can no longer ship. We’re also running out of landfill space in the UK.

Other perceived ‘green’ nations in Europe actually incinerate their packaging waste to power their cities (Plastic packaging for example has a calorific value close to that of natural gas!) Many of us in the UK will think of, for example, Scandinavia being environmentally advanced. The truth is that Scandinavian packaging waste is incinerated and they use that, along with a combination of nuclear and gas power, to fuel their country. We are far behind on this holistic thinking. Why does the issue always come back to landfill, rather than utilising waste as something that is an important and valuable energy source? It’s not ideal in the long term, no, but certainly preferable to landfill in the short term.

Finally, consumer education is key

And finally, the poor Joe on the street – how on earth they are supposed to understand the complexities of our packaging world is beyond me. Being fed stories like ‘banning drinking straws is going to change the world’ is simply ludicrous. There, I’ve said it!

Consumers are being fed a constant stream of sound bites, one-sided arguments and voracious debate without understanding the complexity, and positivity, of the packaging they use.

I truly fear that we will all end up back in the dark ages if this situation continues. Change must happen at multiple levels – of course we must increase our ability to recycle, compost where necessary, minimise resource use, address carbon and water footprints and do everything we can to drive toward a circular economy but let’s not literally throw the baby out with the bath water.

Today’s modern packaging is the product of years of scientifically-based design and development, which aims to minimise product damage and waste. We need to support consumers to recycle, choose wisely and slam hard on those who litter. The only way we can do that is to work together – industry, media and government – to produce coherent strategies that optimise solutions for consumers.

I hope this blog is my small way of contributing to that journey.

2 thoughts on “The packaging debate – thoughts from Women in Packaging UK co-founder Jo Stephenson”

  • I read your packaging debate with disbelief and horror. Whilst initially feeling relief that Women in Packaging actually existed, it then became clear that you are just apologists for your corrupt industry with no remit to change it from within. You blame the consumers for littering, you blame the media and government , but take no responsibility for the products you make and sell, which are destroying the marine environment, fish and birds that starve to death because they’ve ingested plastic,, whale and dolphin calves that die because plastic has poisoned their mother’s milk. You don’t seem to get it, plastic is poison to animals and should not be produced by the companies you work far.
    Why aren’t you championing the use biodegradable packaging?, that won’t stick around for a thousand years. Bioplastics have been around for years, your industry should be using them. . The problem is not with how much single use plastic we can recycle, it is about how much you produce in the first place. I am so disappointed that you are just an apologist for a lazy, selfish, profit driven industry, happy to let it continue to pollute our planet , and blaming everyone else. You are no better than the men in packaging despised by all.

  • Thank you for your comment.

    For some time now, plastic packaging manufacturers, and indeed the wider packaging industry, have put sustainability and environmental concerns high on the agenda. There is a continuing focus towards developing products which contain less material whilst ensuring, importantly, that they remain fit-for-purpose and functional. This comes as a direct response to societal concerns about the environmental impact of packaging both during manufacture and post-consumer use. Far from being unwilling to change, the packaging industry is taking strides in adapting to and responding to changing consumer/retailer thinking.

    We understand people’s concerns and anger around marine litter but material selection is not the cause of this. There can be no other explanation other than human behaviour and the incorrect disposal of products after use.

    Biodegradable plastics will certainly have a part to play in the future of ‘green’ packaging but they are often construed as more environmentally-friendly; however, the reality is not so simple. First, biodegradable packaging is not suitable for all packaging applications, such as food for example, which requires protection from oxygen and moisture. Secondly, to break down correctly, and therefore not be harmful to the environment, the material has to be placed in suitable conditions post-consumer. Most plastics described as biodegradable have to be collected and separated from the rest of the plastic waste stream and sent to a purpose-designed facility where they can be broken down successfully. For this to be achievable, it would require greater infrastructure investment, public education and behavioural changes.

    True sustainability is about considering the complete life cycle of a product, from cradle to grave; more than ever before, plastic packaging manufacturers have this front of mind.

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