The noise around packaging has never been louder, with retail brands all over the world keen to make their packaging as sustainable as possible. But how are retailers and packaging companies planning to transform their packaging solutions and what part will paper play?
This article was written by Sam Upton for issue seven of The Page. Subscribe here.
On March 20, the world’s biggest chain of coffee shops made a statement. Starbucks announced that they were pledging $10m to develop a new, more sustainable coffee cup. This money would be made available as grants to companies, innovators and entrepreneurs to help them create a cup that could be recycled rather than sent to landfill – something that currently happens to most of the four billion cups handed out by the high street giant every year.
The debate around the use of single-use plastic (SUP) in packaging has been rumbling ever since the first plastic shopping bag came off the production line. But the Starbucks announcement is now just one of many from international consumer brands keen to move towards more sustainable packaging. McDonald’s plans to phase out all SUP straws from its UK restaurants, while Coca-Cola has promised to help collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one it sells by 2030.
One of the first British companies to commit to finding an alternative to SUP for their packaging was Iceland who, back in January, vowed to eliminate all SUP packaging from its own-brand products by 2023. Having already removed straws and introduced paper-based trays with its new food ranges, the supermarket is currently in talks with its current and prospective packaging suppliers about finding more sustainable alternatives to SUP.
“We have a number of packaging companies lined up to pitch us their innovations,” says Ian Schofield, Own Label and Packaging Manager for Iceland. “Some are paper-based solutions, but some are plastics companies with alternatives to SUP. It’s really good that everyone’s got on it because they see how important the issue is.”
42% of UK consumers believe food and drink manufacturers should make it their priority to make all their packaging recyclable
Public support for change
The announcement by Iceland was a key stage in the journey towards reducing the UK retail industry’s reliance on SUP and was widely welcomed by environmental campaigners, as well as the public. In a survey of 5,000 UK consumers by Kantar Worldpanel, almost 25% packaging in grocery, while 42% believed food and drink manufacturers should make it their priority to make all their packaging recyclable.
A survey for Iceland also found there was overwhelming public support for a shift away from SUP by retailers, with 80% of respondents saying they would endorse a supermarket’s move to go plastic-free.
Iceland’s enthusiasm has been echoed by Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl and Waitrose, who have all signed up to a pledge called the UK Plastics Pact – a new initiative whose members aim to reuse, recycle or compost all plastic packaging by 2025.
Paper and card have a recycling rate of 83% – the highest of any packaging material
An opportunity for paper
With the tide turning against SUP for food packaging, the natural successor would appear to be paper and cardboard. Already in use for many retail goods, especially in the luxury market, paper and cardboard are durable, renewable and recyclable, and will be an essential material as we move towards a regenerative, circular economy.
“Paper-based packaging is the sustainable, renewable and recyclable packaging option for our customers,” says Tony Smurfit, Group Chief Executive of Smurfit Kappa, one of the world’s leading packaging companies, “and is increasingly used as a key merchandising medium across industries.”
With a recycling rate of 83%, paper and cardboard are among the most recycled materials in the world – the highest of any packaging material. And consumers like it too. Earlier this year, Two Sides published the results of a survey they commissioned to look at the public perception of packaging, and found that 78% like paper and cardboard packaging because it’s biodegradable, while 64% like it because it’s made from renewable wood fibre. Paper and cardboard also received the highest scores for being easier to open and close, easier to store, lighter in weight, more practical and safer to use.
“There is increasing pressure on companies to be more sustainable and this is having a transformative effect on the packaging industry,” says Steven Stoffer, Group Vice President Development of Smurfit Kappa. “Paper-based packaging provides many benefits from protecting the products and preventing waste to optimising logistics in the supply chain. Most importantly, it’s 100% recyclable and has the least impact on the environment.”
With the swell of public opinion and intense amount of work going on to create new packaging solutions, it won’t be long until a more sustainable answer will be found. And with such a high recycling rate, it’s highly likely that paper and cardboard will play a vital part in that work.
“Paper has commercial benefits compared to other materials when it comes to how it can be optimised for the supply chain and withstand the challenges posed by transport and palletisation,” explains Steven. “In addition, corrugated is flexible enough to differentiate shape, form, graphics and print quality, helping brands to stand out in a crowded market place.”
Right now, the research that’s going into developing paper-based packaging is producing some remarkable results and surprising discoveries. When replacing SUP trays with pulp for some of their chilled foods, Iceland actually found that their shelf life was extended.
“When you start re-engineering your packaging around your products,” says Ian Schofield, “there are some real surprises that come along.”
Image credit: A recent advert by international packaging company Smurfit Kappa, showing the strength and versatility of cardboard.
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