Solving the sustainable packaging problem

The global movement to highlight the enduring environmental and potential health impacts of plastics has kick-started wide-ranging programmes to reduce use and improve recyclability of single-use plastics. Many companies are now exploring sustainably sourced and recyclable materials in a bid to consider the end-of-life impact of their packaging. The move is also strongly influenced by consumer demand.

The challenge for businesses presents complexities.

Global Innovation Manager and sustainable strategist for herb, spice and flavour company, McCormick, Jacqui Wilson-Smith says, “packaging plays a vital role in preventing food waste and the impact on environment needs to be weighed-up considering both.

“It’s a complex problem that needs to be looked at holistically. There is no point in doing away with packaging if we will waste even more food. That could be a greater sin. And yes, glass can be recycled, but it can also create greater carbon emissions than lightweight, flexible plastic alternatives. Then there’s the issue of industrial composting facilities for bio-degradable packaging. These capabilities are not widespread in Australia yet, so consumers are confused about how to dispose responsibly.”

A recent report by the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) highlights a compelling need to improve packaging recovery and recycling rates across all material streams. In 2017/18 Australia generated an estimated 4.4 million tonnes of total packaging waste, with 68% of this collected, and 56% of the collection total recovered by recycling efforts. This ranged from 32% for plastics and up to 72% for paper streams – highlighting the significant opportunity to improve waste management practices to achieve higher recovery rates.
 
At the retail end there is much that is already happening to reduce the carbon footprint such as changing plastic egg cartons to fibre, charging for plastic bags and encouraging customers to bring their own. Big brands are also recognising the need to adapt and are making moves with large-scale sustainable initiatives. Creative innovations such as compostable pizza boxes, biodegradable drink vessels and bioplastic made from lobster shells are already on the shelves.

McCormick has made a commitment to reducing its carbon footprint by 25% and 100% of plastics packaging will be able to be reused, recycled or repurposed by 2025. Jacqui Wilson-Smith says, “it’s about doing the right thing and taking leadership to innovate responsibly and to help educate consumers on how to re-use, re-cycle and re-purpose packaging too.”

However, there is still considerable work to be done in the supply chain. The proliferation of plastics in the last 60 years has largely been driven by practicality. The light, impermeable and cheap nature of the material has driven much of its ‘success.’ These are complex problems that require collaborative efforts to solve such as creating circular economies across the whole chain. To accelerate this circular approach, APCO formed five working groups in May 2018. These groups are collaborating to address biodegradable and compostable packaging, expanded polystyrene, glass, polymer-coated paperboard and soft plastics.

According to Space purpose led performance research in 2017, Millennials and Gen Z prioritise sustainability in the products they buy. 85% say they can make a difference by purchasing sustainable products and 74% want to educate themselves on how they can reduce their carbon footprint. 60% say they are willing to pay more for products produced sustainably. This presents an opportunity and a challenge for the creative designers and thinkers.