What the packaging industry is getting wrong about sustainability, and how we can make it right
In packaging today, there’s a massive disconnect between what’s being said about the industry’s sustainability efforts, where the real impact can be made, and what’s being done. The current consensus is that plastic packaging is okay, so long as it’s contained within a circular business model - meaning it’s reclaimed, reused and recycled. In practice, however, plastic has largely been replaced by paper and pulp products. Here’s why that’s a problem.
Will consumers put their money where their mouth is when it comes to sustainability?
By Winfried Muehling, General Manager of Pro Carton
The inexorable rise of the beauty subscription box
A question posed by every brand and retailer that seems to produce many different answers, is whether or not consumers are actually willing to spend their money when it comes to sustainability. For example, major UK supermarket chain, Asda, recently launched research suggesting that half of Brits are unwilling to pay extra for more sustainable products. Whilst willingness may differ from reality, I am not sure this data paints a true picture of the situation, particularly when it comes to packaging; in fact, our research had different findings.
A Europe-wide survey conducted by Pro Carton found that nearly three quarters (73%) of UK shoppers would pay more for a product if the packaging had less impact on the environment. The same survey found that 65% of European consumers admitted to having already switched brands because of packaging concerns. Furthermore, when asked about what the most important packaging features are, one in three (73.9%) UK consumers valued packaging that was easy to recycle – the highest across Europe, followed closely by consumers in Spain (73.4%) and Italy (72.2%).
There is clearly a growing understanding and appetite to do more for the environment through consumption and purchasing decisions, as more than half of Brits (61.4%) have been actively recycling more of their waste over the last 12 months, and 68.2% ranking recycling among the top three ways to reduce climate change.
Interestingly, younger consumers are quicker to recognise the impact a throwaway lifestyle has on the planet and are willing to act on it. The survey found that younger British consumers – aged 22-28 – were most willing to spend more (88%) for the sake of the environment whereas those in the over 65 category, were the least likely to pay more.
Still, three in five (59%) would spend extra for more eco-friendly packaging. What's more, cartonboard was confirmed as the packaging material of choice with 79% of European consumers – comparably 75% of UK – consumers agreeing on cartonboard as their preferred solution for environmentally friendly packaging. The younger generation in particular is concerned about the impact their purchasing decisions have on the environment.
We recognise that whilst consumers may in theory be willing to pay more, perhaps in a bid to do good, there are limitations to the shelf price in practice. What’s clear is that there is a monetary threshold in which the scale of willingness is tipped. Out of the 73% who were willing to pay more for a product packaged sustainably, 34% said they would pay 0-5% more and 26% said they were willing to pay 5-10% more. However, these numbers dropped significantly past this threshold, with just 11% willing to pay 10-20% more and just 2% willing to pay more than 20% extra.
As environmental concerns continue to take centre stage, our research demonstrates that consumers are more willing to make purchasing decisions that minimise their environmental impact. Here, an understanding of the life cycle of cartonboard and the success of the recycling value chain, demonstrates how the material fits within the circular economy and continues to further build consumer trust in the use of cartonboard over alternative packaging materials.
While functionality and costs have helped to drive the popularity of materials, such as plastics, over decades priorities are changing and as a result, so too are the packaging materials used. Consumers recognize a sustainable product firstly from the packaging. The latest product innovations in packaging evolved with a strong focus on sustainability in mind.
In most cases, special requirements on raw materials or production processes will add costs. Stakeholders across the board, from consumers to FMCG brands and retailers are all looking to embrace the most environmentally friendly alternatives that also deliver on performance, functionality, and price.
This is where the cartonboard industry comes in. Not only do cartons deliver on functionality - they successfully protect a product through its entire life cycle from transportation to the shop shelf. They deliver on-shelf design appeal and aid accessibility and recyclability at the end of the product’s life. For example, cartonboard with a functional barrier creates sustainable and safe food packaging, and with recent EU proposals boosting recycling targets, the focus is shifting to those materials that promise the most economical and environmental benefits.
While our research paints a different picture to Asda’s research, there was one aspect of the report that I fully agree with: that it takes full alignment along the value chain to decide on the solutions with a lower environmental impact and to minimize the 'price barrier' to greener choices. The long-term impact of consumption is deeply concerning, and the recent discussions at COP26 highlight just how quickly we need change. Climate concerns are a shared problem that we all must solve together.
Main image: Reusable Silicone Pocket Bag. Credit: Stasherbag.com
Reclaiming paper’s value at end-of-life is a challenge
While plant-based paper and pulp is generally appreciated for its renewable and recyclable properties, recycling these materials isn’t as straightforward as one might expect. Recycled cardboard has smaller fibres than virgin pulp (fresh material taken directly from plant matter). This makes recycled paper/pulp packaging less durable and, therefore, more likely to fall apart during use. For this reason, recycled cardboard shouldn’t be used for long-distance shipping and other instances where durable packaging is needed to protect products. Other materials, such as glass or aluminium, can be recycled indefinitely without losing integrity.
It’s not just the physical attributes of paper and pulp that make it unattractive for recycling. Paper-based materials have much lower scrap value than others, making them less viable from a business perspective to recycle. Scrap aluminium and steel, on the other hand, maintain strong values, making them more attractive materials for recyclers.
While recycling is key to a circular economy, recycling companies understandably prioritise materials that make the most business sense. At the moment, paper doesn’t cut it. Without an external incentive to recycle paper-based materials, recyclers have little reason to accept them. Many municipalities in the US, for example, have stopped curbside collection of paper for recycling because the collection cost per ton has outpaced the selling price.
How true end-to-end circularity can improve the sustainability of packaging
For organisations to ensure circularity in packaging, they need to take control of the process rather than relying on municipalities and other external groups. By instituting ‘take-back’ programmes, brands can bring circular principles in-house so that packaging products are appropriately reused and recycled.
Dunnet Bay’s Rock Rose Gin is one example of an FMCG that has successfully incorporated circularity into its process. The gin is packed in recyclable pouches rather than traditional bottles, and the brand has made it easy for consumers to recycle by sending them back to the company through the post. This eliminates any confusion around how consumers should dispose of products and puts the brand owner in control of its entire packaging waste stream - which in turn cuts down on waste.
Loop is another company that is revolutionising consumer products. The brand enables consumers to buy the products on their shopping list and have them delivered in refillable packaging, thereby eliminating packaging waste. The offering harks back to when milk was delivered in glass bottles, which were emptied at home and left outside to be refilled for the next delivery.
Sometimes, going back to basics is just the change we need.
Other retailers could easily model this example. There is a missed opportunity for brands to take back empty cardboard boxes as they deliver new items to the consumer’s home. Reusing boxes that are in good condition would cut costs, reduce waste and improve the customer experience by getting rid of a constant problem: that growing pile of cardboard boxes that needs to be broken down for recycling.
Rather than putting the onus on the consumer to break down boxes - which only adds to recycler woes and diminishes the structural integrity of whatever the pulp is turned into - brands can simply reuse boxes as they are. They could partner with shipping companies to pick up the boxes from the consumer’s doorstep with each delivery, then bring them back to the warehouse for the next round of packages.
How brands can make circularity more attractive to consumers
Understandably, businesses want to pursue processes that consumers support. To make circularity in packaging more attractive, brands must showcase the value behind the cost. Circular processes are often more expensive initially but can improve the consumer’s life as well as the planet. Getting that second point across is crucial.
Fortunately, by eliminating or reducing single-use packaging (plastic or otherwise), consumers are less confused about how to properly dispose of different materials, knowing what’s recyclable and what isn’t.
Many product packages today combine multiple materials, which means that users need to take them apart for recycling – if they’re recyclable at all. Removing this burden by creating packages made from one material improves the user experience and the sustainability of the package.
P&G’s EC30 range of home & healthcare products comes packaged in one material for easy recycling. They’re also made without added water, thereby cutting down on waste and emissions. Lighter products require less energy to transport, and the products themselves receive the necessary water for use during the washing process – whether that’s in the washing machine while doing laundry or using a solid shampoo in the shower.
Using subscription models, as EC30 does, also makes it easy for consumers to get what they need before they run out. This adds another layer of convenience while making it easier to incorporate reusable/refillable packaging.
Tru Earth Laundry Strips are another great example of how brands are incorporating circularity while providing the consumer with products that are better aligned to their wants and needs. The company’s dissolvable strips are packed in a compostable sleeve that doubles as a shipping envelope – cutting out unnecessary packaging. The product itself also cuts down storage space in the consumer’s home, taking up much less space than a traditional bottle of liquid detergent, and eliminating any confusion around how much detergent to measure out, as well any risk of spills. Further evidence that making products better for the environment makes them better for customers, too.
Getting packaging sustainability right
While many packaging and FMCG leaders are eager to replace plastic with paper and cardboard, that shift ignores the recycling costs, excess waste and excessive use of water and energy, as well as having to continually add new feedstock to ensure the durability of corrugated shipping boxes.
A more circular model across the board with different materials will encourage more reuse and provide more value to recyclers, brands and consumers alike.
Are packaging manufacturers heading in the wrong direction, when it comes to sustainability? Jamie Stone, sustainable packaging design specialist at PA Consulting, is concerned.