As an industry that uses plastics on a daily basis, what do UK print and packaging businesses really feel when they hear the material being berated?
For Kath Doran owner of Spectrum Plastics, which produces and prints plastic cards for libraries and keyfobs, the issue is a lack of information: “Everyone has gone frantic. Blue Planet II was brilliant, and it brought a lot of attention to some serious issues, but people are getting caught up because that is just about single-use plastics. There isn’t enough information out there. Customers are getting sidetracked with the fact that they should stop using plastic. They don’t know all the details.
“We’ve stopped talking about plastic items that have longevity to them, like the library cards we produce – you can get 10 years out of them, unlike a PVC product. They don’t snap or go brittle.
“I think we’ve got a kneejerk reaction to plastic, but there is a place for it.”
It’s an opinion that many in the industry are bound to share, as does Chris Groslar, managing director of Reading-based Conservatree. “As a business we use plastic where we think it has a good place,” he says.
“We’re a small-format printer offering digital, litho and inkjet. We use Teslin a material that allows us to print for use outdoors and the material has longevity. If someone wants a banner to leave outside, you don’t really have an alternative to printing on plastic.
“We’ve tried to reduce the amount of plastic used in things like business card boxes and we now offer a paper box. For me, the big question about plastic is single-use and how we recycle it. Most people know that some plastics are recyclable, and we just need to get the word out about what can be done when you’ve finished using a plastic item.”
Hatch Print’s managing director, Gary Toomey, however, sees things differently and believes the industry has a responsibility to lead the way. He says: “Changes do need to be made. One of our newest products is a fully recyclable and compostable roller banner – no more plastic films, just good old cardboard so they can be broken down and buried, literally – causing no harm.
“Finding an alternative to shrink wrap is our next focus. Although it’s terrible stuff, it does a good job of protecting our work. Still, we are working on different techniques to be able to hold a set of leaflets together, ship them and ensure they aren’t damaged when they arrived,” he explains.
During a breakfast meeting held by the European Flexographic Industry Association (EFIA) in Manchester back in September, attendees were asked to raise their hands if, were they to find an alternative to plastic or found solutions to the issues some plastics cause, they would be prepared to share the knowhow for the greater good. Only 30% of the audience voted in favour of sharing knowledge.
This is, perhaps, not surprising – nobody in business would be keen to abandon a commercial advantage. Toomey says: “Like most industries, we all play things close to our chest in terms of what we are working on and then, once we have a solution for our localised problem, we publish the results. This makes it hard to know if the industry as a whole is making any changes.
“I can openly say we are trying to remove single-use plastics at Hatch, maybe industry leaders can offer guidance on how we can all improve along with facts of what savings can be made.”
To this end, the Retail Institute has set up the Collaborative Industry Forum, which will meet for the first time next month in Leeds to discuss the future of packaging.
Olga Munroe, research and operations manager at the Institute, explains the forum’s purpose. “It’s bringing together all the interested parties, from retail, manufacturers, supply chain and local government and WRAP to try to produce an actionable 10-year strategy.”
She explains that the group intends to create a very structured framework: “We can identify what information is needed to help us plan for a circular economy and who is needed for that to take it forward and action it in some way.
“There’s a number of elements to the puzzle that the Forum will look at: reduction of plastic materials, increase the lifecycle of the product that you make and looking at recyclable elements of the product for when it’s in the public domain.”
SMEs in the lead
In contrast to the voters at the EFIA event, it seems that many SME printers are actually working quietly under the radar to do their bit to tackle the issues of plastic.
Spectrum Plastics is helping to educate its clients, but strongly believes that there is a need for leading manufacturers of core materials to work to get the key messages out there. Doran says: “What needs to be discussed is what plastic products are good to use and what are not so good. For example, talking about products that can be re-used and reloaded.
“It could be as simple as telling people about the lifecycle of gift cards. These are usually just used once and then the shop disposes of them. But they can be reused and passed on as another gift. Anything that has got a mag stripe, or a barcode can be used repeatedly.
“Instead of just simply dismissing plastic, it’s about re-educating and thinking cleverly how we reuse these items.
“Plastic has become a dirty word. But it’s used in security items – passports and driving licenses – and there isn’t a paper product around that you could use that would be secure enough. Plastic has got to have its place.”
For the team at Conservatree, the desire to improve sustainability is there but making it commercially viable is not straightforward: “We’ve looked at offering a programme to help people send back their plastic business card boxes to be used again. But the cost of it just didn’t make sense. But we need to be a lot more aware of what plastics mean to the environment. We need to think about what happens to the plastic when we’ve finished using it,” Groslar says.
Tony Hitchin, general manager of Pro Carton, the European Association of cartonboard and carton manufacturers, stresses the importance of the role smaller businesses can play in this process. He says: “SMEs have just as important a role to play in encouraging the use of environmentally friendly packaging formats as the large multinationals, particularly when dealing with smaller customers that might not have the resources that larger groups would have.
“The key is to be pro-active in providing solutions that customers can easily implement. If they’ve not done it already, it may be worth reviewing the customer’s entire packaging portfolio and identifying which packs could be converted to more sustainable materials or where the pack could be modified to reduce the amount of non-sustainable material that is used. This applies not only to the packaging that the SME already supplies to the customer but also to the packs that they don’t supply.”
Doran concludes that businesses and consumers still struggle with balancing the constant nagging from their conscience to be green with the reality of managing the financial implications that this brings. “At the moment we got two opposing sides to this: ‘I must be green, I must not use plastic anymore’ – then you’ve still got people who are conscious of the fact that they should use something else, but money is a factor, so they end up sticking with what they’ve got because it’s cheaper. Trying to be greener it is more expensive.
“I’ve been trying to work with suppliers and manufacturers to see if there is a way, we can produce something that when it is tied up with other materials it is bio-degradable and is a really truly green product. But we’re just not there yet. People are really spouting about cutting back on plastic, but there just isn’t enough interest in suppliers to invest to give us a better, greener product.”
Calls for an action plan
Olga Munroe of the Retail Institute wants businesses to come together as a network and use trade associations to communicate ideas and research. She says the Collaborative Industry Forum is all about sharing knowledge. “Businesses need to stay connected with their trade associations who can signpost key information to them. The new Forum is focused on being an action-driven initiative rather than just a debating forum.”
If the industry bigwigs are really interested to hear what SMEs want to help them tackle the war on plastics, they are happy to spell out their requirements:
Hatch For the industry as a whole to work on reducing single-use plastics, such as tape, shrinkwrap and bubblewrap
Conservatree To educate clients, partners, and end users’ suppliers, basically everyone in the chain how best to use plastic
Spectrum Plastics To put out clear guidelines of what choices customers have got when using plastic. How you go about using it and highlighting choices and benefits of using it. So, you get the right material for your application