Packaging a solution
The quantity of packaging is rapidly increasing across the globe in both developed and emerging markets to meet the needs of growing and more affluent populations. This increases the impact of packaging along every stage of the packaging life cycle, from the extraction of resources to the management of waste at end of life.
Nevertheless, many advances have been made to temper the growing volume of waste being produced. This includes new product stewardship regulations, greater efficiency in product supply chains and cost pressures prompting companies to save money by using less packaging to deliver the same outcomes. These advances have had positive benefits, including: lowering the demand for raw materials, reducing waste and emissions, switching to more sustainable materials and the removal of hazardous substances from packaging.
Earlier this year, my team at the UTS: Institute for Sustainable Futures conducted research on the sustainability of packaging companies operating in emerging markets. The top three performing companies are all headquartered in Europe, which is an acknowledged leader in packaging sustainability. The findings from these companies, a number of which are global and operating in Australia, provide useful insights into packaging waste here.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
The research was commissioned by Stewart Investors to investigate and evaluate progress being made towards packaging sustainability. The goal was to provide a greater understanding of how companies are addressing packaging sustainability and how Stewart Investors, as a progressive investor with a focus on long-term sustainability, can support these companies in making the most effective improvements in this area. Eighteen companies were included in the research on the basis of participation in an interview and/or sufficient public data.
In order to assess these companies, a framework for packaging sustainability was developed that involved nine criteria: five relating to packaging outcomes, and four relating to business processes and activities that support packaging sustainability. Four outcomes criteria are directly relevant for packaging waste: packaging efficiency, packaging recoverability, consumer engagement and on-site packaging recovery. Performance against each criterion was rated on a five- point scale.
Each company received an individual assessment, which included comparison against the benchmark and specific recommendations for improvement.
WHAT WE FOUND
Overall, companies performed best against packaging efficiency and on-site packaging recovery. Packaging efficiency is attractive from a cost and resource productivity perspective and both of these performance areas are also more easily controlled by companies than, say, supply chain processes. These are obvious areas where companies embarking on packaging sustainability improvements can begin.
At the other end of the spectrum, the criterion with the second lowest area of performance overall was packaging recoverability. Also lower down the performance list is consumer engagement.
Simple packaging efficiency can be achieved through a combination of improved packaging material selection and production, clever packaging design to increase structural strength with less material, and designing packaging for purpose rather than overdesigning.
Good performance includes specific targets for reducing packaging relative to product or sales, or more holistic measures, such as primary and distribution packaging plus product leftovers, fewer materials recycled – along with systematic processes to continually review existing packaging.
One issue with packaging efficiency is that light-weighting cannot continue indefinitely: there is a physical limit to reductions in volume and weight of packaging without compromising packaging integrity or increasing product waste. Leading companies therefore look to optimise packaging to achieve the best balance across these factors, and also consider the product-packaging system as a whole. An example of this is changing the product to a concentrate to reduce volume, creating reusable packaging by introducing refills or changing how a product is delivered, such as from a product to a service.
Most companies had good on-site packaging recovery systems for easily recoverable materials such as cardboard and other valuable waste streams, from both incoming product packaging and packaging waste generated on-site.
The most common action was setting a simple zero waste to landfill target across operations. Leading organisations, however, ensured that zero waste actions didn’t default to recycling, but included waste avoidance and minimisation measures, such as working with upstream suppliers to reduce secondary and tertiary packaging, shift to reusable packaging or taking back packaging.
In addition, they have found markets to divert problem wastes. Best practice would be ensuring that all materials were recovered to the high value, prioritising end-of-life channels according to the waste hierarchy.
Packaging recoverability is clearly a more complex and difficult area to improve as it is likely to require significant rethinking of packaging design, choice of materials, manufacturing processes and supply chain impacts.
Improving packaging recoverability is also more difficult because of the complex trade-offs that need to be made between competing environmental and social objectives. For example, it may make sense to replace reusable glass bottles with lighter weight plastic to improve the overall carbon footprint by reducing transport-related emissions.
Leading companies are not only choosing materials recoverable through existing consumer channels, but also providing financial and operational contributions to creating new collection or recycling services or participating in extended producer responsibility schemes.
While all companies met the minimum standard of some effort to engage consumers through on-pack labelling, for about quarter of companies this was limited to the inclusion of a recycling symbol on commonly recycled packaging materials, such as glass or cardboard.
Again, leading companies use labels to educate consumers about sustainable packaging and sustainable consumption. For example one company uses on-pack ecolabels, which include recovery advice as well as the performance of both the product (such as the proportion of renewable materials and certification) and the packaging (for example, proportion from recycled material and proportion recyclable).
WHAT WE LEARNED
Improving packaging sustainability is a complex process. There is no standard method, formula or approach that will work for all companies all of the time.
True sustainability requires a systems perspective across multiple sustainability criteria. It also needs to consider the specific issues for each company and the communities in which they operate, and these can change over time.
Therefore, each company must consider its business practices, the products it sells, the packaging materials it uses and the available infrastructure and facilities in its key markets to identify appropriate sustainability strategies for packaging. The material issues for a food manufacturer are different to those of a retailer or importer, and a global brand has more influence on its supply chain than a medium sized company operating in one market.
The most successful companies have adopted a structured approach involving research, stakeholder engagement, target setting and monitoring against goals. Perhaps most importantly, they understand the complexity of packaging sustainability and can make informed decisions about the inherent trade-offs between alternative sustainability strategies.
WHAT CAN COMPANIES DO NEXT?
Companies can use the performance levels for the waste-related criteria above to self-assess their current performance, and then choose key areas to focus on pushing performance up to the next level. The case studies over the page provide examples of actions that companies can take.
The full research report is available online, providing the complete Packaging Sustainability framework, and detailed results for the 18 companies included in the study.
Following on from this research, we are also working with the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) to develop a new Australian packaging sustainability framework. This framework will be released to signatories of the Australian Packaging Covenant towards the end of the year. More information is available directly from APCO.
WHAT ARE COMPANIES DOING TO IMPROVE PACKAGING SUSTAINABILITY?
Many of the companies we interviewed are already monitoring, recording and quantifying how they are progressing towards packaging sustainability, or are taking steps towards doing so. Companies that are well-advanced towards packaging sustainability are using multiple strategies such as:
- eliminating unnecessary components
- concentrating products to reduce pack size
- reducing packaging weight and volume
- minimising or removing toxic materials
- using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper and board
- designing products for reuse or recycling (such as replacing foamed polystyrene and multi-material films)
- introducing reusable containers and/or refill packs
- labelling containers to encourage consumers to recycle
- engaging with consumers to improve sustainability outcomes
- working with government and forming consortia to develop industry standards
- creating product and material databases to assess the environmental impact of products objectively for use in packaging design and further improvement
- optimising packaging design for packing during transport to minimise transport costs and carbon dioxide emissions, and
- sharing data, methods and information openly with competitors to improve packaging sustainability across the sector.
Written by Jenni Downes. This article also appears in Issue 7 of CWS magazine.
Lead image: Kia Cheng Boon © 123RF.com