materials | sustainability
materials | sustainability
Communicating to consumers: materials and sustainability
There are a range of different aspects to a product's environmental impact to consider when purchasing, but how clearly do consumers understand these? David Clark, sustainability VP at Amcor, offers some clarification and reflects on what companies should keep in mind when communicating these benefits.
The role of packaging
is more evident than ever before. People around the world live longer and more healthy lives thanks to better access to safe food, water, medicine and other products – many of which are protected by packaging that increases shelf life and freshness.
We know that plastic's beneficial properties – cost efficiency, light weight, great barrier properties and reduced carbon footprint – also means it can be a problem in the environment. The good news is that brands and packaging manufacturers along the value chain are making progress toward addressing this global challenge.
People increasingly want to know how their purchases affect the environment. This is understandable – we feel better when we buy from brands that are doing more environmentally.
Consumers want sustainable products
In a retail situation, shoppers rely on information printed on packaging to understand a product’s sustainability claims. It’s important to make those claims clearly. A recent Nielsen study found that sustainability matters to consumers so much that products that make sustainability claims generally outperform the growth rate of total products in their categories.
Previously, consumers mainly focused on understanding the sustainability characteristics of a product. Now, they are more aware of the impact of the product’s packaging and want to understand what happens to it after they use it.
In partnership with brands and retailers, convertors are innovating to make sure that packaging has the best end-of-use outcomes and meets the increasing expectations of consumers.
Regulation is also evolving to reflect environmental and consumer expectations. For example, the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy was adopted in January 2018. The strategy aims to transform the way plastic products are designed, produced, used and recycled in the EU so that recycling rates increase and the market for recycled plastics gets a boost. Both outcomes will help to keep plastics out of the environment.
This means companies need to continue to adapt packaging to meet the expectations of governments, manufacturers, retailers and consumers – all of whom are demanding better sustainability outcomes, cost effectiveness, ease of use and safety.
Material choices: which is best?
So, how do consumers navigate packaging options and feel confident that their choices are better for the environment? The first thing to understand is that every packaging format, every material, has implications for a product’s carbon footprint.
Many consumers wrongly assume that glass or aluminium are better for the environment. While metal or glass packaging can have higher recycling rates than plastics, for many applications their carbon footprint is typically higher.
When glass breaks and cans dent, and the products they contain are damaged, this causes waste and that increases the overall carbon footprint. Further, the higher weight of these packages means often fewer packages can be transported per truckload, and more energy is required to transport them.
Lightweight plastic packaging is easily converted into attractive formats, and creates convenient packaging that typically has a smaller carbon footprint than alternatives. PET bottles and jars are highly recyclable as well as being lightweight, shatterproof, transparent and reclosable.
More sustainable packaging options can have a combination of sustainability characteristics. Packaging can have a lower carbon footprint, be recyclable or reusable, or made from post-consumer recycled content. It can also be compostable or made from responsibly sourced and bio-based materials.
More sustainable packaging options can have a combination of sustainability characteristics
‘Bio’ means it’s good, right?
Something that we know causes confusion for consumers is the difference between bio-based materials and biodegradable materials. Bio-based plastics are derived from renewable resources, which are independent of the material’s end-of-use.
These renewable resources can include corn, potatoes, rice, soy, sugarcane, wheat and vegetable oil. Some bio-based plastics, like bio-based polyethylene (PE) can be recycled in the PE recycling stream. However, bio-based PE is not biodegradable.
Biodegradability, on the other hand, designates a property which is needed – among others – to make a package compostable at the end of its use. Bio-based does not equate to biodegradable or compostable. Some bio-based plastics are also compostable or biodegradable, while others are not.
Compostable packaging uses materials that biodegrade in a given time frame under defined controlled conditions in an industrial composting facility. To claim a package is compostable, it must be certified to meet specific testing standards to ensure it will compost satisfactorily.
Compostable packaging is best suited for use in targeted applications where the packaging is composted along with food waste or other organic material.
Products such as tea bags or coffee capsules that also contain organic material and packaging that often ends up in organic waste streams (like produce labels) are well-suited to compostable packaging.
This helps reduce total waste going to landfill by enabling more food waste to be composted and also helps to avoid contaminants in the recycling stream.
consumers still have a responsibility
What matters most is that consumers and communities play an active role in the recovery and recycling systems for packaging – whatever packaging they choose. If it’s a PET bottle, then make sure it is put in a recycling bin.
If it’s flexible packaging, check whether it can be added to your home recycling bin or if there is an opportunity to drop it off for instore recycling where the product was purchased. And advocate with your governments for comprehensive and effective recycling and waste management programs.
So, what are the key takeaways for consumers? First, that the move to more responsible packaging is underway. Second, there are no substitutes for plastics that are completely free of drawbacks. Third, packaging convertors and brands are working together to select the right materials for the right application; and reducing the carbon footprint of products is a shared goal.
Accelerating the move to more responsible packaging and better protecting the environment will take the coordinated commitment and action of consumers, brands, packaging convertors and policy makers. I’m confident we’re on that path.