The packaging industry has a crucial role to play in the move towards a circular economy
Boris Johnson visits DS Smith in West London, a sustainable packaging company. | PA Images
More effective use of materials means lower costs and less waste. From improving packaging design to enabling easy recycling, we need action on multiple fronts.
As a consequence of media articles and television programmes, more people are thinking about their use of disposable packaging, with individuals and businesses now far more conscious of their environmental responsibilities.
Despite the push towards a more sustainable model, it is clear that more action is needed to reduce waste and drive greater resource productivity. That is why new, tougher, regulation is on the way as part of the Environment Bill as the Government implements the “polluter pays” guiding principle.
The measures being introduced will include reforming the UK packaging producer responsibility system. This will ensure that producers cover the cost of collecting and recycling packaging waste, for example, as well as introduce deposit return schemes.
Although new regulations will cement the Government’s wish to see more action into law, the packaging industry is already taking steps to address the present situation and reflect the will of legislators and consumers alike. They aren’t shirking their responsibilities.
There is consensus that a significant amount of packaging waste is created at the design stage. Packaging needs to be robust to protect the product it is transporting or holding but, through market-led innovation, packaging is now becoming much lighter, and significantly more of it is being constructed from sustainable materials. This is helping to cut carbon emissions, prevents the overuse of packaging materials, and reduces the unnecessary use of plastics.
The use of lighter and appropriately sized packaging (right-sized and right-weighted) optimises deliveries, for example, meaning more products can be transported per delivery, which in turn leads to fewer deliveries being necessary. The strategy is commonly known as “lightweighting” within the industry.
If people are serious about addressing climate change, they need to be serious about tackling food waste, and the packaging industry has a crucial role to play
Manufacturers and logistic companies are also developing void-reduction technologies, to reduce the size of boxes, and cold-wrapping technologies are being pursued which use up to 70% less plastic and 90% less power than traditional wrapping machines.
The Government and industry alike are also determined to tackle the scourge of litter which blights so many of our streets, motorways and green spaces. Under the new regulations, producers will pay the full net end-of-life costs for their products, further incentivising the move towards more sustainable and lightweighted packaging.
Producers must also better inform consumers through mandatory labelling how to deal with their waste products, helping to encourage more recycling. Again, the industry is conscious of its obligations and responsibilities on this front, and many are already doing the things the Government is mandating through legislation.
Packaging also has a huge role to play in tackling food waste. Globally, over 40 tonnes of food is thrown away every second and it is estimated that as much as 75% of food disposed of annually would have been fit for consumption.
If people are serious about addressing climate change, they need to be serious about tackling food waste, and the packaging industry has a crucial role to play. By producing and supplying appropriate, recyclable packaging which extends the life-expectancy of foods, the industry can not only help build the circular economy but also help to cut the amount of food sent to landfill.
Despite the growing concern about the use of disposable packaging, there remains a use for it. Getting the balance right is crucial. There is a place for reusable food containers and cups on an individual level, as well as a place for appropriate disposable packaging that can be recycled.
The action taken by the packaging industry to date is encouraging and I know they have a deep desire to work with the Government to do even more in the years ahead.
Mark Pawsey is Conservative MP for Rugby and chair of the APPG on the Packaging Manufacturing Industry.