Consumers wish to make more ethical choices, and are increasingly looking for sustainability information on product packaging before buying. Find out more in this guest article by Jane Bevis writing for OPRL (The On-Pack Recycling Label).
The sustainability of packaging is increasingly scrutinised by consumers, with surveys showing 3 in 5 Britons want the amount packaging reduced and 9 in 10 believing recycling (and hence recyclability) is important. Brands and retailers are working hard to satisfy their customers’ expectations, but what are the right choices?
Continuing concerns about plastics combined with a surge in online purchases (30% of UK retail sales in the 9 months to September 2020) means lots more cardboard and paper packaging. So that’s sustainability sorted then, right? Wrong! As the Green Alliance so ably reminds us, the resource hierarchy applies to all materials – Avoid, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover – and in designing packaging four key questions need to be addressed:
- Do we need it?
- Does it have to be disposable?
- What’s the best material, functionally and environmentally?
- Can the UK’s collection and reprocessing infrastructure handle it?
Should all those cardboard boxes actually be reusable delivery crates, owned and retained by the couriers? Would fibre-based products still be the right solution? How would the infrastructure need to change to enable that shift? It might come sooner than you think: supermarkets and groceries brands are already developing reusable solutions across food and cleaning/laundry products.
Aesthetics are also important. Nearly two thirds of consumers believe cartonboard is the most environmentally-friendly packaging. At the same time environmental NGOs point out the unintended impacts of a major switch to paper and card on natural habitats and biodiversity could be immense. Threats to indigenous communities dependant on these ecosystems also need careful consideration. Whilst the rate of global de-forestation has slowed by a third over the last decade, it hasn’t ceased. So innovations using agricultural by-products that are otherwise waste are better fibre sources than exceeding sustainable timber – or bamboo – harvesting capacity.
Better still, we’d reduce demand for virgin materials by increasing paper packaging recycling beyond current UK levels (79% in 2017, Defra’s latest figures). Across Europe a recycling rate of 85.8% was achieved in 2019. The Confederation of Paper Industries reports over 70% of the fibre used to manufacture paper and board in the UK in 2019 was recovered paper, but post-consumer recycled paper only forms part of that.
Fortunately, OPRL research shows 19 in 20 people want to do the right thing, to keep the planet safe, prevent climate change, prevent wastage and pollution and look after future generations. And 4 in 5 check packaging to understand how to recycle it – all the more important with the increasing levels of complex fibre-based packaging incorporating plastic coatings and other materials. Increasingly people are looking for information before buying.
So the activities of FSC and OPRL are essential contributions to the same ambition: to ensure more sustainable use of our planet’s precious resources. We believe that by working more closely together we can be more effective in supporting the packaging sector in delivering sustainability, and in helping consumers make the right purchasing choices. To the benefit of everyone and everything that lives on our beautiful planet.
Visit the OPRL website here.