Innovating for greener packaging

Dr Peter Maddox, Director, WRAP UK

I always enjoy a trip to Birmingham. It’s not difficult to imagine what it must have been like when the city was the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution; the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’ as it was named, where creativity and innovation were treasured and nurtured. It must have been a fantastically stimulating place to be.

Not only did it spawn a network of small workshops where specialised and highly skilled trades were able to prosper, it was also the home to some of the most iconic British brands ever produced – products which are instantly recognisable and which still reside in our cupboards – Typhoo, HP Sauce, Bird’s Custard and Cadbury’s, to name a few.

So, as I prepare to take part in the Packaging Innovations event here later this week, I’m conscious that a lot of the smart packaging on display and being discussed in the theatres builds on the vision and innovation for which the city is so famous.

Of course, in more recent decades, plastics have become firmly established as an important material in the world of packaging. And packaging innovation shows no signs of slowing as new materials and clever pack formats are developed and brought to market.

Historically, packaging design would have been driven largely by cost, convenience and functionality, not just for the end consumer but also for moving valuable goods along the supply chain. And packaging became an important channel for marketing and brand departments. The success of those brands developed in Birmingham depended also on their clever marketing and instantly recognisable visual appeal which became ingrained in our collective consciousness. That is what designers strive for still today.

But back then, very few producers concerned themselves with the sustainability or circularity of their packaging. Truly we were in a linear make, use, dispose economy. That Packaging Innovations now has an EcoPack Stage, and a panel called ‘The Big Carbon Debate’ show how times have changed.

It is important to remember that the main purpose of packaging is to move goods safely around the economy, and very often the environmental footprint and economic value of the goods is a lot more significant than the packaging.

But this packaging, and particularly how it is used at the end of its life, has struck a chord with us all.

It has stimulated a debate about the consumerist, convenience culture which it has helped to fuel. Society is now, rightly demanding that sustainability or circularity is designed into the manufacture of packaging, helping us all to retrieve, recycle or reuse the pack. Today packaging innovators not only have to continue to improve the attributes of packaging for their customers and end-users, but keep it out of our high streets, parks, rivers and oceans.

When the topic of packaging comes up these days, most people’s thoughts turn to plastic. There is nothing wrong with plastic as such; it’s a superb material for packaging, especially for food. However, there is too much unnecessary plastic being used in packaging in the UK, and too little attention paid to its end-of-life. We have all had to confront the terrible damage it is wreaking on our oceans and countryside when it becomes uncontrolled waste.

We all have a role to play in tackling this twin challenge and that is why I am delighted that WRAP established The UK Plastics Pact and is working with all its members to make changes to what is placed on the market and how we manage this packaging. Our latest progress report on the Pact, published just before Christmas, shows real progress is being made. Of course, anyone involved in the packaging supply chain in the UK already makes a financial contribution to the recycling of the products they place on the market – known as ‘producer responsibility’. This contribution covers less than one-fifth of the costs incurred by local authorities in collecting end-of-life packaging. The Government is in the process of introducing a new ‘extended producer responsibility’ regime for packaging, with the intent to recoup much closer to 100% of the cost of collection and recycling. This is based on the reasonable premise that this offers a financial incentive to reduce these costs and a business incentive to increase the use of recycled materials. So, in a few years’ time, it will make strong business sense to design, manufacture and use packaging that is much more sustainable and circular.

These are all important subjects and challenges to explore at Packaging Innovations. I am looking forward to being on the EcoPack Stage this Wednesday, where I’ll be on a panel discussing how we get the consumers to play their part. It’s a great question, and one that everyone in the supply chain should be engaged with – even businesses right at the start of the supply chain, such as the packaging designers and innovators. Good design can reduce waste, improve sustainability and grow margins, market share and brand value. What part will you play?