As the end of 2018 comes into sight, it has been nearly a full year since the plastic packaging debate was famously thrust into view by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II documentary series.
And with the spotlight on global warming also shining ever brighter, many shoppers have suddenly become increasingly aware of how environmentally unfriendly the packaging they come into contact with is and are acting accordingly in their purchasing decisions.
The European Consumer Packaging Perceptions study, a newly published report from Pro Carton, the European association of carton and cartonboard manufacturers, found that media coverage on packaging waste polluting the world’s oceans has influenced the purchasing habits of 74% of Europeans, including 72% of UK shoppers.
63% of UK respondents to the survey recognised cartonboard/cardboard as being the most environmentally friendly form of packaging and it is the printers operating in these areas that have, unsurprisingly, benefitted the most from the ‘Blue Planet effect’.
“We have certainly seen increased activity following the negative publicity related to plastics, with customers asking for cartonboard carton solutions for both products which have been historically packed into plastics and also products which have previously been in cartonboard packaging but have been switched into plastics over recent years,” says Glossop Cartons sales director Wayne Fitzpatrick.
He adds, though, that it may yet be some time until the impact is fully felt on the high street.
“Whilst work certainly seems to be taking place within the brand owners and retail sector, no significant change can yet be seen on the aisles.
“Of course, there are lead-time and cost implications which need to be fully considered. In my view the question will be ‘does the consumer understand the potential cost implications associated with a change in packaging materials?’.”
Pro Carton general manager Tony Hitchin adds: “It was always going to be a slow process because manufacturers will have packaging equipment, contracts and stocks – it’s not something that you can generally easily change overnight.
“The important thing is that consumers are demanding this sort of action – I think people need to realise the strength of feeling and perhaps also a bit of competitive advantage that could be gained by reacting on some of the findings in the study.”
Alexir Partnership marketing manager Claire Summersby says her company has been “inundated with enquiries”.
“At the last Packaging Innovations show in London it was a constant request from the visitors looking for packaging that was recyclable, biodegradable and compostable.
“We have new and existing customers who have placed this at the top of their agendas and we have already helped many.”
She adds: “The stumbling blocks seem to be a lack of coherency between consumers, local councils and central government; an unwillingness by brand owners and retailers to pay extra for their packaging; and the technology available to replace plastic in some circumstances.”
Macfarlane Packaging has just put its own research out about overpacking, another area consumers are becoming increasingly keen for retailers to address in a bid to be more environmentally friendly.
“There’s still innovation in protective packaging but it’s a matter of looking at the packaging operation and the products and deciding what the right approach is,” says Macfarlane Packaging marketing director Laurel Granville.
“That may be paper packaging or, depending on the product, it might be that air bags are the right solution to cut down on the amount of packaging used.”
Indeed, while plastic has been painted as the enemy by many quarters, it is sometimes the only material suitable for a job. And the problem ultimately exists where plastic – particularly of the single-use kind – ends up in the wrong place. So is more awareness around how to dispose of plastic needed, to avoid consumers shunning it completely?
Clifton Packaging managing director Shahid Sheikh believes so.
“What we realised very quickly is the reality of the lack of knowledge, not only within our industry but from the public perspective,” he says.
“Everyone started riding on the back of keywords – recyclable, biodegradable and compostable – but without giving it any further thought.
“We will soon open a Packaging Centre of Excellence, where we will offer some teaching towards the different material options available in the market. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to put forward the reality, so we’ve titled it ‘the myths versus the reality of the plastics debate’.”
He adds: “The world has benefitted ever since plastic has been around; you couldn’t have extra shelf life and long-life without plastic.
“Plastic is a by-product of the oil coming from the ground – it was a miraculous discovery and it is the final disposal method of it that has become the problem.”
Sheikh believes that by declaring war on plastic, the government “have thrown the gauntlet not at the industry, but at themselves”.
“The government need to do a lot, lot more. The key now is the disposal and there are not enough recycling centres in the UK,” he says.
BPIF Cartons general manager Jon Clark adds: “While there’s a danger of nanny state coming into it, I think the government should be making sure that the local councils are collecting waste properly and that there is proper segregation and consistency around the country.
“With all of the local authorities that are collecting waste, in one area you can recycle something while in another you can’t, so consumers are confused.”
With the negative media attention it has received of late, it is little surprise that consumers are turning away from plastic in their droves. But other materials are not always a suitable replacement, and with some increased public awareness and the necessary recycling procedures in place, it will likely reposition itself in the market rather than disappear altogether.