The future of ‘sustainable’ packaging

The future of ‘sustainable’ packaging

Gavin Landeg talks about collaboration, the consumer and considering the whole value chain

Packaging, by its very nature, enables products like food and drink to be distributed efficiently and safely whilst limiting waste. Effective packaging can therefore make a significant positive contribution to the sustainability agenda, limiting the environmental impact of products across the supply chain and helping to tackle issues like food waste.  


As for all sectors, it is now is an important time for the packaging industry and its environmental agenda. Growing consumer understanding of the issues surrounding sustainability and the environment, combined with major technological developments, are driving innovation across the sector. 


There is, however, still a lot to be done to overcome the environmental challenges that we, as a global society, must address. Creating packaging that limits environmental impact across the entire value chain – from sourcing renewable materials right through to protecting its contents and ensuring it can be recycled after use –is key to achieving this.  


Educating and engaging consumers, so that they can make more informed choices, is also crucial. Whilst we have made some great progress on recycling, there is still work to be done in other areas, especially the use of renewable resources, where we still have a way to go to increase consumer awareness and understanding. 


The bigger picture


There is no single solution to the issues we face around sustainability, and tackling them is a responsibility we must all take very seriously. Across the packaging industry, manufacturers are focused on a range of priorities when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of their operations – from boosting recycling rates to cutting carbon in the supply chain. And there should be a feeling of optimism. For example, global provision of recycling schemes has been on the rise year-on-year.


From the carton industry perspective, we are delighted that 90% of UK local authorities (LAs) now offer a carton recycling service, and 52% offer kerbside collection (the remaining 48% collect cartons via bring banks). This is great progress from where we were as recently as 2006, when very few LAs collected cartons. And we expect to see kerbside coverage increasing further still after the opening of the UK’s only dedicated carton recycling plant in Halifax – a collaborative project undertaken by our industry body ACE UK and the paperboard producer Sonoco Alcore – in September 2013. 


Across other packaging types and materials, we have seen similar progress, and this is cause for celebration. But, recycling is only part of the story, and we must also focus on addressing the environmental impact of packaging at other stages in its journey.


Consumers play a vital role, as purchasers, influencers and, ultimately, end users of packaging. And inevitably, a significant part of our efforts must be focused on educating and engaging them with these issues. That means encouraging them to think beyond just the ‘end of life’ of their packaging. They should be thinking not only about recycling the packaging they buy, but also about where the materials used to make it came from.

Rise in renewable materials


‘Renewability’ is an area of growing focus for the industry, and is set to be a key part of the sustainability agenda as we move into 2014.


As an industry, it is important that we consider our supply chains and think carefully about where we source the materials to make our packaging. That means working closely with suppliers, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders around the world to understand how the supply chain that you are part of operates, and identify risks and opportunities.


Using renewable materials – which, if managed properly, can be re-grown or re-produced indefinitely without depleting natural resources – should be a priority for packaging manufacturers. It is something we care passionately about at Tetra Pak – from our long-standing support of responsible forestry to our recent work to develop bio based alternatives to our caps, made from sugar cane. 


When it comes to engaging consumers, whilst we have made significant progress on recycling, we still have some way to go on renewability. Consumer understanding of the terminology and processes involved is not yet as high as it could be – many think ‘renewable’ refers to a material that can be re-used at the end of its life, for example. 


As is often the case, the tangible and practical is easier to engage with than abstract concepts, and renewability is best communicated to consumers through vehicles like FSC™ certification.  Given our cartons are primarily made from paperboard, responsible forestry is a major focus for us. We introduced the world’s first FSC-certified cartons in the UK with Sainsbury’s in 2007. And, in 2012, we sold 26 billion cartons in 39 countries carrying the FSC label; including over 1 billion in the UK and Ireland. 


This label helps raise consumer awareness of the importance of responsible forest management, ultimately, enabling them to make more informed purchasing choices. Our latest, global study into consumer and influencer attitudes towards sustainability issues revealed that over half (54%) of UK consumers now recognise the FSC label, the highest in any market we studied, including the USA, Germany, India and China.


We also saw in our research that a growing number of consumers value strong environmental performance in packaging, and are even willing to pay more for it. We found that over half (54%) of UK consumers are willing to pay up to 20% more for milk in environmentally sound packaging, for example. 


There is perhaps a challenge in there for us, as an industry, to make sure we are recognising and meeting consumers’ changing expectations in this space – and that we are making the most of the opportunity to combine business benefit with environmental good in catering for this market.


The role for innovation


We must continue to drive innovation to develop more environmentally sustainable packages that offer the same convenience and quality as traditional packaging. This was a key focus for us, for example, when developing our bio based caps, made from sugarcane. We worked hard to produce a final product that looks and feels the same, and works just as well as the original. The only difference is the leaf stamped onto the design, which, like the FSC label, alerts the consumer to the fact that it is a renewable alternative.


Shifting perceptions, so people realise that they don’t have to sacrifice or compromise (for example, on functionality, quality or durability) in order to choose something with a lower environmental impact, is a vital part of encouraging the adoption of more environmentally sound alternatives. That means we must strive, wherever possible, to create sustainable options that really do perform as well as the original.


Price is another crucial factor here. Although we know some consumers are willing to pay more, to an extent, for environmentally sound packaging, we must focus on producing sustainable solutions at competitive prices. 


Ultimately, this will also bring benefits to the industry. Environmentally efficient packages and systems that use less water and energy, and that produce less waste, translate into operational cost efficiencies for manufacturers, as well as responsible environmental action. 

What next for sustainable packaging?


What is clear is that both industry and consumers will play a vital role in the future of sustainable packaging.


As an industry, we must continue to engage, educate, and enable consumers to make informed purchasing decisions and minimise their environmental impact as a result of purchasing sustainable products. This means addressing everything from clear labelling and communication on issues like renewability, to making recycling facilities as easily and widely accessible as possible. 


Alongside this, we must continue to develop strong working relationships not only with our customers and suppliers, but with public authorities, environmental organisations, industry groups and community associations. Collaboration – a word sometimes used a little too liberally – is key to tackling the challenges we face, and must be the mantra by which we work. 


As the industry takes stock of its progress to date and looks ahead to the coming year, there is much to celebrate, but even more to aspire to. 




Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall