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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Beyond the box

Society has become much more engaged with the environment and, as we start to consider the implications of COP26, we have a strong reminder of the need to act.  But effective solutions  need to be based on sound science rather than populist action and rash opinion.

When it comes to packaging, terms like renewability, reuse, and recyclability generally mean something measurable, though we still see consumer confusion over products described as ‘recyclable’ that are not in fact commonly ‘recycled’.  There are also vague terms which risk being disingenuous, such as “environmentally friendly” and “green”. These mean little without any further justification.

Various regulatory authorities in the UK are now establishing their guidelines on what can be said in terms of a “green” claim, so everyone will be required to prove their case much more accurately.  Speaking for the paper industry, that is a welcome development.

Another term increasingly being used is “sustainable packaging”, but what does that actually mean?  A particular example of packaging can have various advantages but there is a bigger picture -packaging only exists because we need to transport food and other products to the consumer.  It is a fundamental part of the supply chain, but it is only one part, and all too often undue focus is put on the packaging and not the product.

Studies consistently show that for food & drink, packaging is less than 10 percent of the overall environmental impact, when you consider the production of the food, storage, transport, and cooking.  In truth, good packaging is a sound investment.

True sustainability comes from an analysis of the entire supply chain – we all need to think more broadly.

Different material sectors may continue to argue over which is “the best” packaging material, but it is time that we put aside our adversarial attitude, looked more honestly at our decisions, and identify what we can all do to the genuine benefit of the environment.

All materials have a role to play, no single material can offer all the right solutions, and I wouldn’t want to overstep the mark here by offering an over-arching analysis of the pros and cons of each and every different packaging material available.

So I’ll stick to outlining some open and honest facts about cardboard, a subject I can claim to be well versed in, with the aim of informing stakeholders and empowering them to make their own reasoned judgements about our particular area of the packaging debate.

Corrugated cardboard packaging

This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of cardboard packaging, first patented by Albert Jones in December 1871 with his proposal to use it as a packaging material.

Cardboard has become commonplace in modern society and we all too often take it for granted.  From the humble box which enables retailers to stack shelves, to simple document storage, or that vital assistance when we move house.  Increasingly it is also the packaging that enables the online home deliveries, which so many of us have come to rely on since lockdown.

But did you know?

  • The vast majority of the fibre used to make paper for cardboard packaging has already been recycled, more than 75 percent for UK papers. Where virgin fibre is used, it is typically accredited to FSC or PEFC forestry management standards.
  • Rather than being responsible for deforestation, paper for packaging is sourced sustainably, with more trees being planted than are harvested. Forests have been growing in Europe – between 2005 and 2020 European forest cover grew by an equivalent to 1,500 football pitches every day.
  • UK papermakers have been active over many years to reduce carbon emissions. Between 1990 and 2020, emissions of carbon dioxide fell from 6.6 million to 1.8 million tonnes, a total reduction of 72 percent.
  • While paper is a major user of water, this ‘use’ would better be described as ‘borrowing’, with some 86 percent of all water returned to the environment after treatment, at least as clean as when it was abstracted.
  • In use, cardboard packaging is designed specifically for a particular application, ‘right-sized’ and fit for purpose. This means better stacking in warehouses and transport, with fewer trucks on the road.
  • At end of life, paper packaging is recycled more than any other material, nearly 83 percent across Europe. The recyclability of cardboard is well recognised and almost every single UK citizen has the opportunity to recycle.

Informing consumers about the benefits of cardboard – an industry approach

The UK cardboard industry recognises the role that it has to play in educating the public about the factual benefits of this versatile material.  The Beyond the Box campaign (www.cardboard.org.uk) was established with a simple objective to ensure that UK consumers can make informed choices.  Over several years we can now demonstrate millions of opportunities to view our messages, across national print and online media, broadcast, and social media.

Each material sector has a role to play in promoting their own materials, but this should always be done with clear and transparent messages, without stretching or disingenuous claims.  Packaging designers, politicians, and the general public deserve unambiguous statements, to help them make their own informed decisions.

The Confederation of Paper Industries held a national campaign last year, promoting the recyclability of pizza boxes

A Supply Chain responsibility to educate and inform, rather than to follow

Brand owners and retailers put great resource into their choice of packaging, and they should be prepared to explain these decisions to the consumer even if it risks being unpopular.  It is they who have acquired the expertise in product development, and nothing will be gained if the supply chain accepts the popular wishes of a well-intentioned but poorly informed public.

Finally, nobody has a greater responsibility than the politicians, who must make informed decisions based on sound scientific studies.  They too have the ability to acquire knowledge and the opportunity to explain their actions.  An ill-informed decision, however well intentioned, does not help the environment if it is based on a populist agenda.

So where next?

As we take stock of the decisions that are being made at COP26, and as we look to the future, we must all recognise that we have a role.

That role goes beyond our own personal desires or business objectives, to look more honestly and openly at all of our decisions – as packaging designer, retailer, or consumer of the final item.

We all need to weigh up our needs rather than our wants, seeking to be efficient and responsible. Only by making some difficult decisions and assessing our own lifestyles can we start to make a real difference to the environment.

The Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas has chosen to put sustainability ahead of economic growth and may deserve the title of most sustainable country in the world.  Of course, their economy is totally different from Western society, but there is a lesson there for all of us.

I am not naïve enough to think that anything will change overnight, but if we really intend to do something for the benefit of the environment then we have some hard work ahead of us.

That requires a reasoned assessment of packaging as part of the overall supply chain and building sustainable systems that recognise the value of their packaging.

Andy Barnetson is Director of Packaging Affairs at the Confederation of Paper Industries. Since 2018, Andy has been a key spokesperson for CPI’s Beyond the Box campaign, which has been promoting the benefits of cardboard to consumers and business leaders throughout the UK

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