Technology Report: Packaging

Tess Raine
Monday, March 26, 2007

Cutting back on packaging, and non-recyclable, non-degradable ingredients in packaging, are key to saving the planet from death by landfill.

‘Packaging’ has become a dirty word in recent months, following the unlikely union of the Women’s Institute (WI), The Independent newspaper and environment minister Ben Bradshaw. First, the WI encouraged its members to boycott supermarkets, due to their use of excessive packaging. Then The Indie kicked off a high-profile campaign on its front page to eradicate the packaging scourge, and the final nail in the coffin came from Bradshaw, who urged Britain’s shoppers to dump unnecessary packaging at the supermarket tills.

As a result of this pressure, excess packaging has become the latest environmental crime and retailers have responded by placing new demands on their suppliers as they seek greener alternatives. But due to the muddle of misinformation surrounding environmentally friendly packaging, there is confusion as to which is the greenest option: renewable, recyclable, reusable, degradable, sustainable, minimal, low in carbon emissions, or all of the above?

Packaging industry experts from Pira, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) agree that sustainability is the key and that thinking “renew, reuse, recycle” when developing new packaging will help you tread with a lighter environmental footprint on a greener path.

“There is not one single environmental impact to worry about over any other,” says Pira head of strategic consulting Michael Sturges. “There are lots of environmental considerations to take into account. For example, switching from one material to another might reduce your impact in one way but have a detrimental impact in another.”

To get a complete picture, he recommends conducting a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), to understand how products impact the environment. The European Federation of Corrugated Board Manufacturers (FEFCO) holds LCA data about corrugated board, and Plastics Europe does the same for different types of plastic. “A lot of LCA data is available for packaging manufacturers and converters looking into developing new packaging,” says Sturges. Which is just as well, because without a nod to green ideals, the packaging industry is finding it increasingly difficult to win business from big brands and supermarkets.

Recycled and recycling
Probably the easiest way to convince the public of a pack’s environmental credentials is to use recycled material or produce packs that can be recycled. Many people already recycle some of their household rubbish in kerbside collection bins, but few realise how little recycled material is actually used in packaging.

This is something the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is keen to change, and at a conference last month, it focused on developing better practices for closed-loop recycling of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for drinks bottles, (see ‘Recycled Content’, below).

Aluminium cans, glass bottles and jars and cardboard boxes already use a large proportion of recycled content, but producers are taking longer to use recycled plastics such as polypropylene (PP) for margarine tubs, PET for bottles or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for food trays or cling film.

Open-loop recycling, or reusing the pack, is another potential way to save the planet from packaging. Brands see it as a sure-sell to the public because many people already reuse packaging. Shopping bags are reused as bin liners, plastic bottles as propagators in the garden or Nutella jars as glasses.

Reusability is something Sheffield Hallam University is investigating with its Design Futures department. Creative director Janet Shipton is researching the possibility of encouraging people to reuse their packaging or dispose of it so that its materials can be reused.

“When you are designing a pack and are considering its sustainability, you have to look at the whole environmental subtext of the pack. Changing materials might alter the feel of the pack and consumers might not reuse it in the same way. It can affect the way people behave with packaging,” she says.
Incpen director Jane Bickerstaffe says that considering the sustainability of a pack is about more than just its environmental qualities. “It isn’t just a question of good or bad packaging. It’s about what you do with it, and how much it costs,” she says. Bickerstaffe stresses that packaging has to be socially and economically sustainable so, as well as protecting and delivering a product, it must be cost-effective and of greater benefit to the consumer than, say, collecting their milk in a refillable jug or their meat in a paper bag.

Social benefit sandwiches
Design Futures worked on the design concept for Marks and Spencer’s (M&S) cartonboard sandwich packs. The idea was to help M&S salve its consumers’ environmental consciences, but Shipton says that the design process focused on making it more than just environmentally friendly. It has a social benefit too, with an easy-open zip that opens the pack into a tray to eat the sandwich from and catch any crumbs.
The M&S sandwich packs, produced by Nampak Cartons, are made from FSC accredited cartonboard with a compostable PLA plastic window (see ‘what is PLA?’, below). The invention of bio-polymers has raised the bar for packaging producers wanting to score environmental points.

Packaging made from renewable resources, such as PLA, made from corn starch rather than oil, or cartonboard made from FSC accredited forests, has caught the attention of some entrepreneurial and innovative brands. Innocent uses PLA for its vanilla bean smoothie bottles and Pret a Manger has combined a PLA window with cartonboard in its salad boxes. CCL Decorative Sleeves became the first European converter of PLA for shrink sleeves in 2006, showing that printers and converters shouldn’t need to make any operational changes when using PLA.

Because PLA is made from plant starch it can decompose. This is something that some traditional oil-based plastics are now also able to do. National Flexible manufactures SuperEco from polypropylene with an additive to make it degradable.

Marketing manager Andy Smith says: “We’re hoping that customers don’t have to do different jobs with a degradable film. We want them to know we’re not offering a different material. It’s just a different version.” A different version that offers the same performance levels as standard OPP film, but it breaks down to CO2, water and biomass when composted.

Plastic films made from cellulose, such as Innovia’s Nature­Flex, or where part of the oil is substituted by chalk, such as with Ecolean, are other ways that plastic is shedding its image as the least environmentally friendly material around.

Losing weight
Once you’ve considered recycling, reusability and renewable materials there’s another ‘R’ to tempt you to environmental practices – reduce. If you reduce the weight of materials used in a pack to the best practice minimum and introduce leaner manufacturing processes, there’s money as well as environ­mental savings to be had.

At the end of 2005, the Courtauld Commitment between WRAP and 13 retailers committed to designing out packaging waste growth by 2008 was agreed. Its aim is to deliver absolute reductions in packaging waste by March 2010 and to identify ways to tackle the problem of food waste.

Lightweight packaging has taken off as a result. Coors Brew­ery reduced the weight of its beer bottles and saved 45,000 tonnes of glass a year in production while Heinz reduced the weight of the ends of its tins by 10% to save 1,400 tonnes of steel and 585 tonnes of carbon a year. Now the environmental catchphrases are defined, just remember the four Rs mantra to produce more planet friendly packs. All together now: ‘reduce, renew, reuse, recycle’.

Plastic that composts sounds unbelievable, but PLA, which stands for polylactic acid, is a plastic resin made from corn starch that, in the right conditions, will rot away to nothing but CO2 and water.

PLA is an abbreviation converters and printers should get used to hearing and specifying, because many environmentally conscious big name brands are demanding it in their packaging, as an alternative to
oil-based plastics such as PE (polyethylene) or PP (polypropylene) .

In the UK, rigid plastic bottles for Belu mineral water are already produced using PLA. Applications that use flexible PLA include shrink sleeves, lidding-film and Sainsbury’s’ shopping bags. All have been well publicised. PLA extrusion-coated board and paper are also proving popular alternatives to expanded polystyrene materials or PE coated board.

Ess and Jay coats paper and board with PLA and managing director John Legg says there has been interest from major high-street retailers for packaging ice cream, yoghurts and cereal. Board or paper coated in PLA, he says, is also suitable for commercial print applications because, “there shouldn’t be any difference between PLA and PE going through printers’ presses”.


A Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) conference held in February heard that the use of recycled PET (rPET) in retail packaging in the UK is being hampered by inadequate recycling schemes and a lack of reprocessing plants.

Despite growing public awareness about the opportunities to recycle PET packaging, typically used to bottle soft drinks, only 15% of PET consumed in the UK is actually recycled back into production, despite significant environmental benefits. “In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, there’s no scenario that says that landfill is better than the recycling of plastic,” says WRAP’s plastics technical manager Paul Davidson.


A huge shortfall in the availability of post-consumer plastic, says WRAP, highlights the need for more and better kerbside collection. Only half of all households in the UK have kerbside bottle collection, and only 40% of the 100,000 tonnes of plastic bottles collected are PET.

Trials have shown that consumers are highly supportive of recycled PET in packaging, which is good news for retail. “This allows brands to build significant goodwill,” said Peter Skelton of WRAP’s retail team. “By using recycled content, the industry can gain commercial advantages without compromising quality.”
Coca-Cola, M&S and Boots have demonstrated the potential to use recycled plastic in new packaging for both food and non-food products and have committed to using it in the future.


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