5 reasons why we need sustainable packaging

Here’s why packaging innovations are key to creating a sustainable future.

Dan Noakes

Dan Noakes

Grand Challenge Lead

  6min Read

Almost everything comes in packaging, which is crucial for many products that are distributed over distances — whether for stability, protection against the elements, or providing product information. 

But once a product has reached its destination, its packaging is often thrown away. 

Estimates suggest that between one-fifth and one-third of the 368 million Tonnes of plastics that are produced from fossil-derived oil and gas every year are used for the manufacture of packaging. And because plastic can take 450 years to decompose, we need to find sustainable packaging solutions to protect our Earth for future generations.

Sustainable’ really is the buzzword of today. But all too often businesses are greenwashing’ by labelling their products as sustainable, without taking a proper systems approach of supply chain and the options available for reuse and recycling at their end-of-life. 

So, what does it take for packaging to *actually* be considered sustainable?

Sustainability is more than just environmentally friendly — it means considering social and economic factors too. For example, new technologies may allow us to create a product that is compostable, but if the cost of production is too high, it will not be economically viable for producers or buyers. Or, if we are told to recycle some packaging, but our local authority does not value recycling and has not provided adequate recycling provisions, then the packaging is unlikely to ever be recycled. 

Here’s 5 reasons why we need sustainable packaging solutions and how we’re making it happen…

1) Reduce pollution

In Europe, around 40% of the plastic we produce is used for packaging. As plastic is produced by extracting fossil derived oil and gas from the ground, the production and incineration of plastic packaging releases carbon dioxide into our atmosphere — this is in excess of the planet’s natural carbon cycle, and therefore contributes to climate change. 

Paper-based or bioplastic packaging may be considered better in this sense, because when incinerated, they release carbon dioxide that originated from our atmosphere rather than fossil derived carbon buried deep beneath the Earth’s surface millions of years previous. 

If not incinerated, however, most plastic packaging goes to landfill or ends up in our oceans. 

An estimated 8 to 12 million Tonnes of plastics end up in our oceans every year, harming wildlife and water resources. Large pieces of packaging are harmful to turtles, whales, and sea birds. And as plastic accumulates in the environment, it breaks down into microplastics which are easily ingested by smaller fish and crustaceans and accumulates in our food chain through the fish we eat. 

Switching to biodegradable packaging solutions — that are designed to last just longer than the product it contains — would enable packaging to breakdown naturally, therefore reducing environmental pollution and releasing carbon dioxide that is part of the natural carbon cycle if composted or incinerated.

One solution we have developed is creating compostable bio-packaging from commercially available biopolymers and seaweed with iPAC and Oceanium Ltd.

Waste pollution

2) Save money in the long term

With most plastic coming from the petrochemical industry — which has had many decades of engineering and supply chain advances — mass production of fossil-based plastic is currently economically cheaper than biopolymers. 

However, with greater investment, biopolymers and biomaterials – made from agriculture and forestry materials and residues – could become cheaper packaging alternatives in the future because they can be much less harmful to our planet. 

We’ve helped create bioplastic trays that can be used by big retailers such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Marks and Spencer to package meat and salads. Our intention is to replace virgin PET — polyethylene terephthalate — food trays with our biodegradable polymer that could go straight into your compost or a food waste collection. This would help to eliminate the waste burden of packaging in homes and businesses. 

Bio-plastic manufacturing

3) Use less resources

To conserve energy and resources, packaging needs to be circular. This means reusing and recycling packaging once it is no longer needed and keeping materials in a circular supply chain for as long as possible. 

Mechanical and chemical recycling supports the development of a market for secondary raw materials, which can reduce the amount of virgin raw materials extracted from below Earth’s surface. 

An example of a circular packaging already in use is paper-based packaging manufactured using Kraft paper, originating from trees. According to Cepi​.org, the paper and pulp industry achieves high recycling rates of 74% and paper fibers are estimated to have an average paper recycling rate of 3.8 times across Europe, with recycled fibers going back into making Kraft paper. Otherwise, Paper packaging can be composted to support soils with plant growth or burned for renewable energy. 

This circularity makes good use of the energy and resource fed into the initial product, and at its end of life, it can be utilised to replenish the environment and grow more trees. 

We’re currently working with the pharmaceutical industry to develop smart and digital packaging solutions that can enable circular packaging and improve supply chain efficiency, including exploiting big data and the internet of things (IoT). This could be used to better track and trace packaging, guaranteeing products reach their destination without damage or spoiling, and help to ensure all materials stay within a circular system.

Reusable coffee cups

4) Independence from imports and exports

Packaging makes up a considerable amount of waste sent to landfill and incineration in the UK. It is also sent abroad for recycling and energy recovery as solid recovered fuel or refuse derived fuel. Such practices have been identified as harming local environments abroad, whilst contributing to carbon emissions during transport and burning. We need to take responsibility for our own waste and invest in the infrastructure needed here in the UK to recycle more of these materials. 

This can be helped through better packaging design. Compostable packaging is made by design to be easily converted back to the soil at its end of life. Recyclable packaging is made by design to be easily converted back into new materials at its end of life, providing a consistent supply of secondary raw materials for the manufacture of new packaging products. Use of UK produced bio-base feedstock materials in the manufacturing of packaging would reduce our reliance on importing plastic packaging, which would positively impact the UK’s resilience and reduce our sensitivity to any volatility in global economies and supply chains.

We’re working with both industry and government to develop suitable materials and a resilient supply chain system to allow packaging to be sourced, manufactured, and recycled within the UK

Import & export

5) Empower consumers

Packaging also has the important role of informing and educating the consumer, and potentially improving their democratic influence through the purchasing choices they make. For example, it can support the needs and health of the individual through information on allergies and nutrition, i.e., FODMAP, and provide information on the sustainability performance of the product to better inform the public to make socially and environmentally responsible decisions at the point of purchase. This will incentivise brand owners to provide more sustainable products and packaging options. 

Through smart-labelling technology, including barcodes, QR codes, radio frequency identification (RFID), and virtual augmentation, consumers can be connected with real-time information. This could help to address the societal challenge of consumerism’ and help people to buy only what they really need and what they really care about. When smart packaging is combined with consumer personalised design and use of more sustainable and better-quality materials, then smart tech can encourage the consumer to retain the packaging, such as a refillable drinks bottle, which can be used again and again, thereby overcoming the problem of single use packaging. 

plastic bottles

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