Unpacking the complexities of communicating advances in sustainable packaging

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It’s fair to say that the packaging industry bears the brunt of press and public ire when it comes to sustainability.  We’ve all seen the emotive footage of oceans and beaches drowning in tonnes of packaging waste and heard the likes of David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg bang the drum for action.

But is this assessment of the evils of packaging actually fair?

Last week, we attended the Environmental Packaging Summit 2021, hosted by Packaging News at the Coventry Building Society Arena.  Timed to coincide with COP26, the two-day event brought together experts from across the value chain – manufacturers, FMCG brands, retailers, recyclers, trade associations and consultants.

To be honest, it would have been useful if more of these speakers had been in Glasgow (although some have been!).  They’d have been able to impress upon the delegates at COP26 the complexities of achieving true sustainability in packaging, the strides that the industry has made in the past few decades and the challenges that remain.

Instead, the world’s leaders will have to make do with reading this blog for insight.

Five things we learnt from the Environmental Packaging Summit 2021

  • It’s a material world.

In certain quarters, there are those to whom the answer is obvious – ban plastics.  However, as Madonna knew all too well, the choice of material matters.

There are a whole host of considerations that the value chain needs to consider when choosing packaging material.  Recyclability is only one facet of this matrix.  Alongside this, what about the carbon footprint of manufacturing and transporting the packed product?  How about functionality?  Ultimately, a pack is only as good as the reason it exists – to protect and preserve what’s inside.

It was gratifying to hear speakers from all sectors – plastics, paper, metal, glass – acknowledge that every material has its place.  That’s a mature, nuanced argument for the packaging industry to make.  The challenge is how to make it.

  • Public education is essential

When all that the public hears is a single, simplistic message – packaging is bad – it’s no wonder that it’s hard for the counter-argument to be heard.  It’s the duty of everybody involved in the value chain (including policy makers) to give the public the full picture.

One particular danger is greenwashing.  Making vague or misleading claims about sustainability is as damaging as saying nothing at all.  If society is to do the right thing when it comes to packaging, public trust is essential.

That means holding an honest conversation, backed by accurate facts and figures.  The work done by organisations like WRAP and OPRL – who both spoke at the Environmental Packaging Summit – has been incredibly useful, in terms of raising public awareness.  Every time you look at a pack and see the ‘Recycle’ swoosh, that’s a victory for education.

However, there’s a lot of detail that tends to get obscured.  Do consumers realise the extent to which manufacturers and brands choice-edit how a product is packaged?  There are hundreds of positive stories about innovation in design and manufacture, which could and should form part of packaging sustainability communications.

Or the reasons why certain packs come with a ‘Don’t Recycle’ swoosh?  I was certainly unaware of quite how disjointed the recycling industry is in the UK.  With close to 400 local authorities determining policy in their own backyard, it’s hardly surprising that there is no consistency in collection, sorting and recycling across the UK.

  • A circular economy is only as good as its weakest link

The ultimate goal of any action in packaging is to establish a circular economy – one that works towards full recyclability and a ‘net zero’ carbon intake.

Clearly, this is a pan-value chain issue, requiring close collaboration between the people who make packaging, transport the packed products, sell these to consumers, the public who then put in the right bin, the councils who collect it, the recycling providers who convert it into recycled content.  Never mind the government who has to set the legislative framework to make this happen.

And this is just for recycling.  What about refill or reuse schemes? Those too need a consistent and seamless infrastructure to become truly viable and effective.

The difficulty lies in balancing reduction in carbon and the elimination of waste.  There will always be a trade-off, so solutions have to be viewed holistically.  The good news is that, at events such as the Environmental Packaging Summit, it’s clear that the right people (or, at least, some of the right people) are asking the right questions and providing sensible answers.

  • Change is coming

EPR. DRS. Consistent Collection. The Plastics Tax…  Ask the general public about these, and most likely you’ll be met with a bemused shrug.  Yet there are several fascinating schemes on the horizon, which will hugely impact our behaviours when it comes to packaging.

Timelines are currently unclear, but within the next few years we will see the following… Packaging manufacturers will be taxed to pay for the costs of collecting, sorting, recycling and disposing of packaging weight, under EPR (or Extended Producer Responsibility). Retailers will add a surcharge to certain packaging, which consumers can claim back by returning the pack under the DRS (Deposit Return Scheme).  Those 400 local authorities will introduce a standardised recycling framework for Consistent Collection.  And, from 1st April 2022 – the one date that is fixed – the UK Plastics Tax will require manufacturers and importers to pay tax on plastic products which have less than 30% recycled content.

In tandem, these will deliver a much more robust, efficient and consistent approach to how we deal with packaging waste.  However, the devil is in the detail, and much is still unclear.  One key question is whether the costs incurred by EPR will be passed onto the consumer.  A speaker at the summit suggested costs for the average household could rise as much as £150 per year as a result of this legislation.

  • The time for action is now – and always

One thing abundantly clear from the summit was that nobody has been resting on their laurels when it comes to solving the challenges of sustainability.  We heard about innovations in replacing or reducing materials; solutions to solve the growth of e-commerce; and even new plastics made from pea protein.

Even so, there is always more to do.  Given the impetus of COP26, there’s never been a better time to up the ante (and, frankly, if we leave it any longer, it’ll be too late).  There’s also the driving force of a younger generation, for whom making choices based on environmental concerns is second nature.

Indeed, one speaker suggested that the businesses who succeed in the future will be those seen to be proactively tackling climate action – so now’s the time to focus on packaging sustainability communications.

For us at Nielsen McAllister, who work in PR and need to keep reporting the success stories and providing insight on how our clients are solving sustainability challenges, that is perhaps the most important lesson of all.

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