It started in December last year with David Attenborough.
The final episode of the renowned naturalist’s Blue Planet II documentary series was the catalyst that opened the nation’s eyes to the devastating, polluting effects of poorly-disposed plastic on the natural world.
This ‘Blue Planet effect’ sent shockwaves through industries far and wide, forced by the growing concerns of their consumers to look hard and deep at their own use of harmful, single-use plastics. At its heart is packaging – the most visible symptom of a wider, more insidious sickness blighting global business.
Producing 2.3 million tonnes of potential plastic waste each year, the UK packaging industry – and its sibling print sector – has keenly felt the ripples of a shift in attitudes.
Plastic was front-and-centre of the Packaging Innovations expo’s most popular debate in March, with audiences crowding to hear from experts how they could improve and revolutionise their own use of the material. It will return in an expanded two-day format at the show’s London counterpart next month.
Although the Blue Planet effect is still too recent to track its impact statistically, anecdotal evidence of transformations in print and packaging has become increasingly abundant in recent months.
The National Trust, through its Dudley mailing provider Advanced Direct Mail, has moved away from plastic polywrap in favour of a fully-compostable, starch-based material to encase its members’ magazine, of which 2.4m copies are produced three times each year. Birmingham mailing house Bakergoodchild has similarly added eco-friendly wraps to its offering.
Meanwhile, UK packaging giant DS Smith has made sustainable packaging the centrepiece of a top-down pledge to supply purely reusable or recyclable products by 2025.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in much broader sustainability considerations, and in recent months we have seen a real surge in legislative and media interest in sustainable packaging solutions,” says DS Smith sustainability director Emma Ciechan.
“We’re excited about the opportunities to help make supply chains more efficient, reduce waste and provide packaging that is not only recyclable in theory, but recycled in practice.
“Being a lover of nature and wildlife, I am passionate about environmental and broader sustainability causes. I believe businesses can play a key role in finding solutions and can become better businesses while doing so.”
Printers cannot say they are not being encouraged to engage in more responsible practice, either. The BPIF dove headfirst into the plastics conversation as it began to encroach on its members, with suggestions including the replacement of blister packs with cartonboard, or ensuring plastic tubs supplying ink are recycled or reused after use.
BPIF Cartons general manager Jon Clark says: “Members are always looking at how they can re-engineer their packing to make it more environmentally friendly and to reduce cost. The use of a particular substrate is in the majority of cases specified by the customer. The printer will be guided by whatever material is best suited for the end use.
“However, it must be remembered that plastic has its place and we must ensure that by removing plastics we do not increase food waste as an example. There must be a balance between the various requirements of the supply chain.”
Baby and bath water
The risk in removing plastics entirely from the equation is not lost on the British Plastics Federation (BPF), for whose membership the material is its bread and butter. Its benefits in preserving food, as well as its durability and hygiene, are all scientifically sound and are the result of decades of development and advancement.
A lot of plastic is recyclable, with about 45% of all plastic waste from packaging successfully looped back into the system, according to the latest statistics from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). As the debate rages and fears are stoked, the BPF has signalled its worries that the positives of plastics are being overlooked.
BPF director-general Philip Law says: “Many BPF members are disappointed about the recent turn of events, having dedicated their lives to innovating and manufacturing materials and products which have excellent sustainability characteristics, particularly in the vital realms of energy and carbon reduction.
“It is actually technically possible to recycle most types of plastic, but it’s not clear this knowledge is widespread. There is a lack of clarity of expression leading people to thinking that all plastics are single-use and trivial.
“What was initially a ‘war against plastic waste’ has metamorphosed into a war against plastics, ignoring their massive benefits in use and the full rationale for using them.”
Key to riding out the waves of the Blue Planet effect, it seems, is not to choose sides – but to meet in the middle and hash out palatable solutions. The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) worries the squabbling could delay progress, with a sustainable new world stretching increasingly out of sight.
Incpen chief executive Paul Vanston says: “At a time when we need the greatest togetherness on solutions, the sadness for me is the proliferation of blame games and finger-pointing as to whose fault everything is.
“That’s not going to help in the long run, and we need to get past this phase very speedily across sectors and organisations.
“It’s much easier to talk of collaboration than to deliver it in practice. There could be 101 different strands of activities that all need to come together simultaneously.
“That word ‘compromise’ will need to feature repeatedly. Just how up for the challenge we all are in practice will be seen over the next few months.”
Smarter simpler design can overcome material mixes
David Palmer-Jones, chief executive, Suez Recycling and Recovery UK
Easter eggs, crisps and quiche have at least two things in common. On the one hand, they are all popular, tasty foods presented in packaging which represents state-of-the-art technology and design. On the other, unfortunately, they make our work as professional recyclers far more challenging than it should be. Take the humble quiche, invariably presented in a paper package with a glued-on plastic film ‘window’ to show off the cheese and onion. Two packaging materials, therefore, and invariably not designed for ease of recycling.
This is not an anti-packaging diatribe. Technologists have shown impressive ingenuity in developing materials and products that ensure contents are fresher, safer and – in many cases, to be fair – boasting lower carbon footprints.
Our contention is that much more emphasis should be placed on recycling (or, even better, reuse) at the design stage. Currently there is no great incentive for manufacturers, brands and retailers to factor in recycling – and design is generally regarded as the crucial element in a product’s recyclability.
As Defra prepares its resources and waste strategy for the autumn, our industry is calling for some fundamental changes under the umbrella of extended producer responsibility. These include value chains contributing far more towards the cost of retrieving their packaging and fiscal measures to reward those putting products on the market that both use recycled materials and are genuinely recyclable. Or, if need be, penalising those who resist. Common design standards are needed, and simpler compositions should be encouraged to make it easier for consumers to play their part.
Defra’s policies are being framed at a time, unique in our experience, when politicians and the public are clamouring for change. The packaging industry and its customers have a perfect opportunity to take the lead.
What has been your experience of the plastics debate?
Grahame Johnson, owner, Brydian Cards
“This argument seems to come around every 10-15 years, which last time saw increased demand for PETG and other greener alternatives. But alternatives are more expensive and the cards we produce often have to carry data in a strip, which cannot be done on board. Where only a barcode is needed, we are switching to board substrates and the testing of new substrates is still ongoing. But if you really look into it, the production of some ‘eco-friendly’ materials can be just as environmentally harmful as the disposal of plastics.”
Ronnie Hart, managing director, Nitecrest
“We mainly produce banking cards, with chips embedded and contactless wires – these products have got to be durable and must be useable every day, so we must use plastic. Plastic cards have a three-or-four-year life cycle so do not have the same impact as plastic packaging. However, we have seen some impact in how our customers react because the phrase ‘plastic card’ brings up connotations that our product is not environmentally friendly. If you walk along the beach, you will find plenty of bottles and straws washed up, but no cards.”
Alex Rhodes, director, Plastic Formers
“With the advances in inks, printing directly onto plastic has now become a cost-effective and durable method of branding. The debate has not really impacted on our business. We make sure we optimise our bespoke products with the customer to allow minimum sheet size and usage, and with some units we offer interchangeable header panels for a longer shelf life. There is a place for plastics in a greener world because it can be recycled 100% back to the raw material. For example, Acrylic is amazingly sustainable and has many applications.”