Collaborating towards a sustainable future

Alex Henriksen, Tetra Pak’s managing director for north Europe, highlights why a shared collaboration between companies, consumers and policymakers is vital as the packaging industry looks to a more sustainable future.


the beginning of March, the Public Bill Committee met for the first time to begin scrutinising the contents of the landmark Environmental Bill.

The onus for this group is to find evidence that the bill will contribute to the government’s longer-term objective to “leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it”.

The packaging industry will be paying close attention. Key policy demands on the government, such as banning exports of plastic waste, reducing the use of single-use plastic, prioritising renewable resources, and recycling waste will all impact the packaging value chain – and action will be demanded.

As these policies impact businesses’ strategies, measures will need to be taken across the industry for it to improve its contribution to the environment. There’s a range of ways this can take place – by focusing on innovation, policy initiatives, and collaboration.

The importance of innovation

Developing new technologies and innovating is essential to reducing the carbon impact our industry has. Rather than looking for quick fixes when it comes to environmental change, businesses should concentrate on developing longer-term solutions. The utilisation of plant-based materials will be key to this; their ability to be naturally replenished over time makes them essential to a low-carbon economy.

However, although we should all be looking to reduce our carbon footprint, for the packaging sector, it cannot be done at the expense of food safety. This is where a commitment to innovation becomes necessary.

The pay off between food, safety and low-carbon emphasises the need for innovation.

Take food cartons, for example. Currently, a sheet of aluminium is required to distribute food safely from producer to consumer, preserving the product for months without the need for artificial preservatives.

Food preservation has been crucial for centuries, and in difficult times – during pandemics, for example, when more people must stay at home – it becomes ever more important. A premature commitment to entirely plant-based packaging will lead to both an increased need for fresh products and, with that, an increase in waste.

The pay off between food, safety and low-carbon emphasises the need for innovation. Tetra Pak has committed to developing climate-smart and renewable packaging solutions for our customers – such as the creation of paper straws, tethered caps and cartons made with plant-based plastics – to aid the creation of a low-carbon circular economy.

Working with policymakers to achieve demonstrable change 

In the UK, it has been positive to see the government pledge significant investment into industry research and development. However, reaching a low-carbon economy requires policymakers to go further in its work with businesses around waste and recycling initiatives.

Currently, circular economy policy measures on waste minimisation and recycling are not going far enough, particularly when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the rate needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Today, the CO2 emissions from material production account for 8 billion tonnes annually.

This is nearly one-quarter (23%) of global CO2 emissions from energy and industry, a figure that is set to rise to 32% by 2050. It is no longer an option to consider recycling policies separate from those designed to reduce carbon emissions from raw materials and manufacturing.

Encouraging greater use of sustainable materials and finding more innovative ways to reuse them is critical.

Retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Iceland have already trialled their own deposit return schemes (DRS) for drinks bottles in their stores. While these are positive steps, for the UK to develop a near mirror to a truly circular economy, the whole packaging industry will need to work with policymakers to achieve a UK-wide DRS that will capture maximum waste.

Encouraging greater use of sustainable materials and finding more innovative ways to reuse them is critical to reducing carbon impact. It should be among the primary considerations for the packaging industry. But we cannot walk alone; collective action is needed.

The need for collaboration 

Collaboration across the packaging industry value chain is required to understand where the areas of greatest impact lie. The completion of the circular economy and building of a more sustainable future will not be done through actions in silo; it will require joint purpose and action. Therefore, it is imperative that we acknowledge common goals and targets, and act both quickly and collectively towards them.

In support of this, we launched Positive Packaging: Towards a Low Carbon Future earlier this year, a study into the changing attitudes of food and drink retailers, the pressures they are facing, and how they’re making packaging decisions.

It is clear how important sustainable packaging has become to retailers across the UK and Ireland – in fact, 97% cited it as their chief consideration when choosing a supplier. The report acknowledges where our sector has done well and highlights where improvement is needed.

It also addresses some common misconceptions held by retailers and consumers, such as the belief aluminium is the packaging material with the lowest environmental impact, indicating how these are impacting packaging choices.

97% of retailers cite sustainability as their chief consideration when choosing a supplier.

Bringing together government representatives and key figures from across the value chain, including food and drink manufacturers, retailers, industry bodies and consumer groups, will be vital for the packaging industry to tackle some of the biggest global environmental issues we face today as a community.

Lowering the packaging industry’s carbon footprint cannot be done overnight. It will require a commitment to developing solutions and collective action from all its members. Making short term changes will be ineffective.

It is essential for all those in the value chain to work together to set common goals and targets and work towards them. Through this, consumers will be presented with sustainable product choices that contribute to a low-carbon economy.

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