The manufacturer and retailer dilemma: To use or not to use plastic packaging?

18 June 2019

It is clear that the UK consumer is increasingly wanting to do the “right” thing when it comes to packaging, but there are many competing trade-offs that do not always get equal air time. A clear example of the dilemma this gives shoppers was highlighted in our recent research with The Grocer, with glass coming out as the third most environmentally sound packaging material compared to plastic / single-use plastic in fifth / sixth.

This is doubtless informed, in part, by the current media focus on the harms that come from using some plastics, but there are equally important considerations for greenhouse gases and food waste which are both important factors in a rounded debate on climate change. Taking the above example, depending on the application then recyclable plastic packaging may be more sustainable than glass, when measured in terms of the greenhouse gases emitted due to the temperatures required to produce glass. Equally, a recyclable plastic tray that significantly extends the shelf-life of food products may be considered more environmentally sound when food waste is taken as the primary measure.

This clearly makes it very hard for retailers, brand owners and packaging manufacturers to know where to focus. They are clear that consumers are saying they want reduced / no plastic packaging, but then large numbers are also refusing to accept compromises on  protection and performance from the packaging. Plus they don’t want to pay more for it.

The other complexity that organisations must deal with is that different demographic groups (age and income bracket) place a different priority on packaging sustainability – with younger and higher earners generally seeing this as a more important part of the buying selection.

The reality is that there will be no one silver bullet answer to this complex debate, with packaging materials (where needed at all), needing to be thought of in the context of:

  1. What is the most sustainable material for this specific product, given the properties / functions it needs to achieve?
  2. Can the benefits of that packaging type be clearly explained to consumers?
  3. How can more of the waste be captured to enter the recycling process (collection) and how can those waste streams be cleansed to reduce the losses from contamination?

The above factors take as a given that one of the key requirements in moving towards a more circular economy is that all packaging materials (or whatever substrate) need to be recyclable. Local authorities and central government also have a role to play in this that has so far proved intractable.  Having different materials being recyclable (or not) in different areas makes coming up with a national solution impossible at the current time.

The other finding from our consumer research is that re-use currently registers a lowly 10% as something consumers actively seek out when thinking about sustainable packaging, compared to almost half that will look for recyclable or compostable materials. Whilst factors such as the carbon footprint / materials required at the time of production will dictate how many uses are required to be “breakeven” with single use materials, I find it surprising that this was not more prominent.

Download the full report with The Grocer.

If you would like to discuss our findings in more detail, or to discuss your own approach to meeting the sustainability challenge then please get in touch.

Simon McKay | Forest, Paper and Packaging Leader
Profile | Email +44 (0)7780 696389

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