Packaging, and plastic packaging in particular, has never had a higher profile, although for all the wrong reasons.
In January, Theresa May’s government declared a war on plastic as part of a 25-year plan intended to eliminate all avoidable waste by 2042. Her call came in the wake of the ‘Blue Planet effect’, as the BBC laid bare the impact of wasted plastics on our oceans and the life it contains in David Attenborough’s documentary series last year.
That effect has been causing shockwaves in the packaging industry, as was apparent at recent trade events – not least Packaging Innovations, held at the NEC, Birmingham almost four weeks ago, at which an epic plastics debate packed out the show’s largest conference theatre and was streamed on screens across the venue due to demand.
Easyfairs divisional director for packaging James Drake-Brockman, heading up his first year proper at the Birmingham show, sensed as much as he mingled with the 4,200 visitors and 330 exhibitors and felt the need to give the subject a proper airing.
“This year, we wanted to address the issues of sustainability and plastic in a balanced manner,” he says. “Our big plastic debate was the biggest crowd we have ever had because people want to get to grips with the reality of it. There is a lot of talk about plastic being evil and it is not a very balanced argument.
“Benefits that come from plastics are being missed in the conversation and so we wanted to look at innovative solutions and groundbreaking work being done to reduce plastic waste by creating plastic materials that help that.
“No one denies that plastic waste is an issue, but it cannot be denied that it has uses, such as stopping food from going off. I think, with the help of our show, there are sensible conversations going on up and down the supply chain.”
What came to the fore more than anything across two days of debate and discussion was the concern that public interest, and moreover public perception, may end up distorting or misdirecting the plastics debate – distracting from the bigger issues to burn straw men instead.
Opening the show’s big debate, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association Martin Kersh said: “In this whole conversation, plastics in food packaging is patient zero. We had the cup issue a couple of years ago and more recently we are seeing straws on the front pages, though cups represent around 0.2% of total waste and straws even less.
“But these are very visible to the public, and because they are making the front pages we are in discussions with Defra and the Treasury, which I never thought would happen, as well as regional governments and organisations like Greenpeace and the Green Alliance.
“We all have the same goal – more recycling and no litter, and we must consult with these people on how to achieve it.”
Consumer behaviour was fundamental to the concerns of visitors, worried that no amount of innovation could counteract the damage an uninformed public can wreak. Jane Beavins, representing the On-Pack Recycling Label scheme, spoke about how customers just do not know their plastics.
“When we started this scheme nine years ago, two thirds of consumers were confused about what to recycle and that figure has not really moved,” she said. “Some of it is quite understandable confusion as customers might not know one plastic from another or understand that they need to be recycled differently.
“Our industry can help by making smart choices at the design stage with labelling – the corporate sector holds the packaging materials at every point in the chain of possession until it is sold to the customer and they do not have the economic incentive to do the right thing like we do, so we must engage and inform them.”
The Hubbub Foundation has a record in engaging the public on sustainability, collaborating with the City of London Corporation last year to set up clearly-marked facilities in the Square Mile for people to throw away their coffee cups. Between April and December, 5 million cups were recycled.
“People will do the right thing if the infrastructure is in place,” said founder Trewin Restorick. “The UK must install more recycling facilities and promote local solutions. Then, the industry can concentrate on eliminating the pointless plastic used for no reason.”
Innovative and sustainable offerings abounded among exhibitors. Graphic Packaging International showcased the ‘trees into carton, carton into trees’ initiative behind its new Integraflex range, while OAL presented its April Eye software, using AI to spot inconsistencies in food packaging and reduce waste caused by human error.
Beyond Packaging Innovations, at the following week’s PrintWeekLive! in Coventry, GF Smith presented to audiences its Extract range of papers. Using James Cropper’s ‘cupcycling’ methods, it extracts paper from the paper/plastic amalgam of a coffee cup, recycles the plastic and makes a range of stocks ready for commercial applications.
Packaging, and plastic in particular, is on many minds once again as Easter approaches – it comprises a quarter of the weight of the average egg on the high street. Cries for reductions and sustainability will ring out, but a survey from Which? found that the material containing the seasonal treats is usually PET 1, a plastic recycled by 99% of local authorities.
Overall, it looks like the industry is listening. Perhaps it’s time for the general population to catch up?
Stop infighting and develop a comprehensive strategy
Sanjay Patel, founding partner, Packaging Collective
The packaging industry is facing a number of strong headwinds currently and this is a good thing. It means that there is not only a need for change, but also an appetite and the necessary passion to make it happen within the industry and beyond.
I can already see many initiatives being driven out of work within the industry as well as NGO groups, schools, local councils, retailers, producers and brand owners. These are all great and are going to start to make a difference in the way that society uses and understands the value of packaging to a way of life we enjoy without consideration in the developed world.
However, to really make a difference we need to do two main things. The first is simple and one that we in the industry are fully accountable for: we need to stop infighting between packaging disciplines.
Plastics are being targeted today and are the media poster ‘bad boys’ for our industry. Those winds only need to blow from a slightly different angle and multilayer flexibles, paper, glass or the metal formats could be next. Let’s stop adding fuel to the fire by us infighting in the industry for our share of the pie. There is enough to go around for everyone.
The second is about recognising the job that needs to be done. Everyone has an opinion on the right thing to do with packaging, but no one seems to have written an overall brief. This is a challenge back to the industry that is fully aligned through the media, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the retailers, brand owners, Defra, Wrap, local authorities, Ecosurety, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the multitude of industry organisations and everyone else who rightly has an opinion.
This key piece of work is one the Packaging Collective aims to deliver within the next quarter through a fully inclusive workshop. Join us today to find out more.
What is your compa ny doing to be more sustainable?
Andrew Grimbaldeston, commercial director, Colpac
“We launched our new Cookpac range at Packaging Innovations. It solves the problem of trying to reduce plastic and be environmentally responsible by presenting a board-based solution to the ovenable pack. It is a green solution for the ready-meal market – comprising board and film which can be put in the oven. It gets tougher when it is heated and its self-venting film is easy to open, which solves a problem for our ageing population. We are trying to do innovative things to help members of the industry learn from each other.”
Jacky Sidebottom, sales director, Glossop Cartons
“One of our main drivers is eco and climate sustainability. All of my colleagues are looking at new materials available for them to experiment with. We would be foolish not to try to do our bit, everybody wants to do something and people are likely to live better lives if we find solutions. We use recycled board for many of our cartons and continue to be able to do our specialised cuttings. Plastic is a key concern for people, though, and it is a problem for us as many of our cartons use windows. Window technology needs a way forward.”
Simon Smith, managing director, CS Labels
“We are moving to new premises and picked up the keys just before Packaging Innovations. It is our biggest single investment. When we move we will have an opportunity to implement new waste strategies and work on our recycling. It is a challenge as we make our move into the flexible packaging market because many of the materials used for those products are not biodegradable. I do not think there has been enough opportunity for us to discuss it as an industry and the supply chain is not there, but customers are demanding sustainability which will help.”