Pack it up, pack it in

The packaging chain has an advantage over other industries because it has been in the environmental spotlight for longer than many. As Jane Bickerstaffe, director of INCPEN (The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment) points out, however, the criticism goes unabated.

And it has responded, not only by putting significant effort into recycling schemes, but also by continuing to reduce the use of resources in distributing packaged goods. If anything, the European Packaging Directive has encouraged people to feel that packaging is a problem, and that the solution is recycling. Industry still faces the uphill task of persuading the regulators that whether it is recovered, recycled or not, the vast majority of packaging is environmentally responsible, and it is in industry’s own commercial – let alone environmental – interest to continually seek to make it more resource efficient.

Packaging in perspective

In a major study for INCPEN, Dutch expert Dr Jan Kooijman showed that the only way to identify how to reduce the environmental impact of distributing packaged goods is to assess the total chain, the combination of the product and its packaging and the consumer’s needs. His report, The Environmental Impact of Packaging in the UK Food Supply Chain, shows that on average packaging protects 10 times its weight in food.

In terms of energy, packaging represents 10% of the energy used in the production, distribution and use of food, and less than a third of the energy used by consumers to shop, store and prepare food. It is a sensible use of resources to prevent wastage of the far greater resources invested in the food.

This helps put packaging in perspective, but more significantly, the work forecast the effect of demographic and lifestyle trends. As people live (and eat) in smaller units, they need to buy smaller portions to avoid wasting food and therefore more packaging will be required per serving. Coupled with other lifestyle changes, this will lead to an increase in food packaging – but it will be more than justified by the consequent savings in wasted food.

The fundamental flaw in the Packaging Directive is that it focuses only on packaging waste and recycling and ignores energy use throughout the chain, product wastage and consumer needs. It sets arbitrary recycling targets for the whole of Europe. In reality, and environmentally, the best level of recycling is based on local conditions and varies over time, in the same way that demand for primary materials fluctuates depending on numerous variables, such as economic climate and demographic trends.

To get real environmental improvement, European policy on packaging should have the broad, simple objective of making rational use of resources. This would allow companies more flexibility to take environmental and social factors into account. The decision to use a particular type or design of packaging is ultimately made on the basis of a series of trade-offs between a wide range of considerations, particularly between amount and cost of packaging and product wastage.

Product manufacturers look for a balance between:

  • protecting public health;
  • protecting their goods (the cost of damaged goods or the danger from spoilt foods is far worse for the environment than using a small amount of extra resources to make a stronger pack;
  • protecting the environment by using the optimum amount of packaging to facilitate easy distribution, storage and use;
  • protecting the consumer (such as providing easy opening packaging for the elderly and less-abled people, smaller portions for smaller households, tamper evidence and so on);
  • protecting themselves (by complying with legal demands on health and safety standards, conveying information and instructions); and
  • protecting their profits through minimising their costs.
  • Flexible approach

    In practice the Directive pushes companies into choosing the packs that are easiest to recycle, which may not be the most resource-efficient. In the same way that choice of packaging should be decided on a case-by-case basis by companies, waste management methods should be decided at local level. For example, if the nearest reprocessing facility is at the other end of the country, there is no point in using fuel to transport small amounts of material for miles. A locally-controlled landfill will be the best option or, for much paper and plastic sales packaging, incineration with energy recovery is an even better option.

    The Packaging Directive is currently being reviewed. It is up to industry to demonstrate to the regulators that a flexible approach will be the best solution.

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