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Sustainability: Packaging coming of age

Posted on: 20 Apr 2022

David Little, Chair of the Irish Packaging Society and MD of Leonard Little & Associates, addresses the challenges and opportunities facing the Irish packaging industry as it faces up to the sustainability agenda.

HAS there ever been a busier, more stressful, complex time in packaging? Currently, the whole industry is facing challenges in every direction: lead-times have extended, prices are rising (it seems like every few weeks), raw material shortages continue to bite, general inflation, supply chain delays and staff shortages, combined with pressures in retaining staff. There is also more pressure from retailers for increased recycled content, with an important drive for more sustainable packaging choices. This is all coming after what was a difficult couple of years for everyone. Covid made much of the sector very busy, with increased demand, while also adding a host of management issues in trying to balance sales and production with social distancing and absenteeism, and now we have the worries from the east.


There has been unprecedented growth in fibrebased packaging, driven by more sustainable thinking and in part by a knee-jerk move away from plastics. The end user tends to see all plastics as a negative, fed by dreadful images of single use plastics in the sea, damaging wildlife, as well as litter on beaches etc. While this is appalling and wrong, littering is actually another issue, predominantly driven by lack of infrastructure and exacerbated by some of the largest food corporations in the world and the local governments. Between them, they introduced first world retail models and supply chains to developing nations without a thought for their waste infrastructure, or how people might handle the ensuing waste, with much of it ending up near or in rivers and ultimately the sea


In Europe, we added to this problem, as we had the idea that if we collected waste packaging and shipped it abroad in segregated bales, then that constituted recycling. That is just collecting and sorting. What we were doing was shipping our waste to developing nations that were effectively even less well equipped to deal with it than we were!


The demonising of plastics

So the current changes are good and necessary for us to take responsibility; not just collecting and sorting but also recycling in a sustainable, circular way. This approach and the Single Use Plastics legislation is a good and necessary way to combat some of these issues and raise awareness, but it should not be extrapolated that all plastics are necessarily bad. Very often, plastics are ironically the best and cheapest way (in terms of CO2 emissions and final cost) to contain or wrap a product and other, more sustainable options will actually prove more expensive and may reduce barrier properties and shelf-life. That is why testing in advance of any pack substrate change is so important; sometimes it is necessary to take your time and not be first to jump, but do more testing.


The other big driver of growth in fibrebased packaging was the unprecedented growth in online sales during Covid and the subsequent demand for corrugated outers. These two drivers, the environmental and the online aspects, are still driving high demand and continue to put pressure on paper manufacture, the supply chain, causing shortages in some liner types, with lead-times extending by up to 3-4 times the norm, and prices are ultimately increasing, it seems, nearly each delivery.


Some of these things we cannot change nor control, but some of them we can. I am a big fan of training and I think the right knowledge and know-how can help improve most situations. Training can help increase efficiencies; it can help increase speed to market; it can help us make better choices; it can help save money; and it can help us feel appreciated.


Upskilling your staff

Whichever side of the desk you are on, your people need to be upskilled to deal with these new challenges. Retailers are demanding more and more in-depth or Advanced Packaging Specs. They now need to know the make-up of the board or laminate, the weights, the recycled content, the barrier properties etc. How can you make informed pack change choices if you do not understand the current or required performance of your pack? If you do not know the stacking strength of your current outers’ BCT (Box Crush Test), how can you suggest, recommend or agree to an alternative spec, one that has perhaps more recycled content?


Similarly for flexible film and laminates, if you are exporting plastic packaged products to the UK from April, you will need ideally to include at least 30% recycled content or your customer will suffer a £200 per ton plastic packaging tax. Is the increased recycled content film supply available and at what cost, and will it perform as well as your current spec?


Here in Ireland with our Eco fee modulation, you may wish to move towards a mono-material rather than a multi-material laminate that is harder to recycle. In this case, you would need to understand the barrier properties of your material, MVTR and OTR (Moisture Vapour Transmission Rates and Oxygen Transmission Rates) and seal strength etc.


Packaging change like this requires testing: testing of what you are currently using as a control and testing of the proposed new material. In packaging, the volumes are usually very high, so mistakes are costly! An agreed process and protocol for pack change is essential and cannot be rushed, as failure will impact on shelf life, food safety and brand equity.


For me, the days of relying on our suppliers’ specs are now gone. Companies need to work with their suppliers to develop their own in-house specs. They should, of course, contain focused and avoid further increases in global warming beyond the already impactful 1.5 degrees C. Therefore, reductions in carbon emissions are essential. Renewable energy sources are imperative to drive forward with a focus on circular thinking and not the selfish, short-sighted, linear approach to life that we have had for the last 50 years or so.


It is amazing that the sustainable approach has not had a faster impact, as it does also bring good cost savings. When you change your packaging as mentioned above, or take the practical steps to change your factory lights to LED, or reduce your water consumption (with less volume hoses), or put solar panels on your roof, these all bring positive savings. The solar panels installation, for instance, can actually be done for zero cost, under contract, when you have a large factory roof area and supply excess energy back to the grid.


Focusing on the big picture

We need to stay focused on the big picture and agree that we all must do our bit and consider our full impact, inside and outside our organisation. The Green House Gas Protocol’s Scope 1 deals with direct company facilities and vehicles, Scope 2 covers indirect purchased electricity and Scope 3 deals with indirect upstream (purchased goods and services, travel, transport etc.) and downstream activities, such as transportation, use of product, recycling ease and cost and product end of life etc. Only if we take responsibility and drive the required changes with a united concerted effort, will we slow or stop the upward spiral of global warming, with all its consequences. The practicable examples above are a no-brainer. Sustainable packaging is actually a little more difficult to implement and in some cases, industry is racing hard to catch up with R&D; hopefully, innovations with suitable specs combined with increased demand will help to bring down the prices of these greener options.


The benefits of training

As I mentioned, training is the answer, in my opinion, arming your organisation and your staff with the tools to make a real difference, both to the environmental performance of your business and to your bottom line. Here are two excellent part-time courses in packaging, a Certificate and a Diploma course that, depending on the requirements, will bring the novice to a new level of understanding of packaging, with all its challenges and opportunities. By way of full disclosure, I am one of the Trainers on these courses.

Food Drink Ireland Skillnet (Ibec) have recently started a very successful Certificate in Sustainable Food Packaging, accredited by PiABC. Carried out online across 12 halfday sessions, it forms an introduction to sustainable packaging, covering all aspects of packaging functions, preservation, manufacturing, materials, NPD, testing, design for circularity and legislation. The course gives students an excellent introduction on how to assess their packaging and choose a more sustainable version. 

Design Print & Packaging Skillnet run the very successful Diploma in Packaging Technology, Accredited by TU Dublin. This course creates Packaging Technologists and trains them on all aspects of packaging, including the fundamentals, substrates, conversion techniques, printing, packing line operations, legislation, etc.