It’s time to move forward on packaging specification

It’s time to move forward on packaging specification

Packaging faces continued and often undeserved attention. In fact, it plays a fundamental role, making a huge range of goods available to the consumer while minimising damage and selling the product – all qualities for which it seldom gets the credit that it deserves.

It is quite right that the environment continues to be a major focus for society and it needs to be recognised that the corrugated packaging industry continues to lead the way on environmental issues.

Between 2006-2009, corrugated packaging in Europe has reduced its average carbon footprint by 12%. What’s more, corrugated packaging has already achieved a recycling rate of over 80%, with on average, 76% of every corrugated pack consisting of recycled fibres.

To put this another way, the corrugated packaging industry is already well ahead of WRAP’s target in Courtauld Commitment 2 to reduce the carbon impact of grocery packaging by 10% between 2010 and 2012.

So it’s ‘job done’ on reducing the carbon from corrugated packaging, but that doesn’t mean that our industry will rest on its laurels, far from it – we are always looking for further improvements. However, an obsession with
lightweighting could take the industry’s customers, such as the large food and drink companies and retailers, down a wrong track. A simple reduction in packaging weight risks increased product damage which is far more environmentally significant. A lighter weight pack may be less efficient at reducing carbon than a heavier weight pack. There are other, frankly, better ways in which to reduce carbon throughout the supply chain.

This is the point that is so often missed in debates about the more environmentally efficient use of corrugated packaging. So I would like to explain why we think there is, in fact, only one sensible way of achieving carbon reduction targets for the long term, and that is to encourage all packaging buyers to move to a performance-based specification method.

In a nutshell, performance-based packaging works to reduce carbon because of the way it acts as a catalyst for major carbon savings throughout the supply chain. Corrugated board is immensely flexible in the way it can be cut and shaped to almost any dimension and this gives designers the opportunity to create packs that take into account every single variable in the supply chain. In other words a corrugated pack can be perfectly optimised for a specific product in a specific supply chain.

For example, let’s look at line-side packing. Here the opportunity is to design the pack to enable fast and efficient packing operations, saving both money and carbon. Then the filled pack is put on a pallet. In order to stack the pallet to the widest and highest extent, the pack dimensions, and the weight of the pack to prevent crushing, need to be ideal for that particular product and pallet. A pack that is too light will cause damage – a pack that is too heavy will waste money. Like Goldilock’s porridge, it needs to be ‘just right’. That’s why CPI calls for ‘rightweighting’ not ‘lightweighting’.

Optimised packaging allows pallets to be stacked to their fullest extent, which means you can start taking lorries off the road, saving fuel and preventing carbon emissions. That’s because the lorries can be filled more efficiently. The same applies to warehouses. All these space efficiencies add up to huge savings in both cash and carbon. Remember, this might even be as a result of producing a heavier corrugated pack.

Nor should we forget the commercial opportunities which this same corrugated pack can provide at the point of sale. That’s because it has not only been optimised to take cash and carbon out of the supply chain, it also has to fill its shelf-space in the most efficient way to increase the availability of product – more product consistently on shelf means more sales. As corrugated board is printed in up to 8 colours these days, it can also enhance brand image and impact at the point of sale. When it’s no longer needed, the entire pack can be recycled and the same fibres back on the shelf in another pack within 10 days!

If it’s all so beneficial, why isn’t the performance-based specification of packaging universally adopted? Reasons include a widespread lack of technical packaging skills, inadequate training to keep specifiers up to date with the latest design expertise and a tendency to specify by material especially if buyers are more interested in the price of the pack than how it can save money in the total supply chain.

At CPI, we feel it is our duty to point out to UK manufacturers and retailers that many opportunities are being missed for saving huge amounts of cash and carbon. Moving to performance-based criteria means that some companies will have to change the way they are used to doing things. We all have to take seriously the need for a step-change in specification practice so that we can move forward and take the science of corrugated packaging to where it needs to be.

Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall