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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Now or never

It would be a brave man, or an Einstein, to forecast with any great degree of confidence what 2022 might hold for the industry. Not to be deterred, the following are my views on some of the issues facing the packaging market in the year ahead. I make no apologies for these centring on the important matters of sustainability and the environment.

Environmental challenges

There is no doubt in my mind that the environmental challenges the industry are facing in 2022 are considerable and incapable of being ignored. The key issues for me are the following: Consumers want uniformity of systems for recycling and environmental policy in general and the demonstration of progress to reduce virgin material usage. This must be allied to greater use of sustainable materials and material reuse. We urgently need packaging which has performance qualities that enable FMCG manufacturers to extend product shelf-life in a hygienic, safe and secure way, to help reduce food waste. This is particularly vital as COVID-19 is likely to be with us for sometime yet. Consumers have a right to expect this from food and drink manufacturers and packaging producer alike, as a minimum requirement.

Need for clear, consistent guidance

However, whether we will achieve good progress in any of these things in 2022 is a moot point. In the UK we still lack a coherent strategy and policy. Taking recycling as one example, there are 300 different recycling systems in local authorities across England. What chance has the consumer to fully understand what is acceptable, right or correct when it comes to deciding which product to recycle or not. A coherent message and clear communications are urgently needed in the year ahead. Will we get this? Well, the UK Government`s delayed Environment Bill finally received Royal Assent on 10 November 2021. However, the vital issue of a bottle Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for England, Wales and Northern Ireland is unlikely to be implemented until late in 2024, after the next general election, meaning it might never see the light of day. The Scottish Government`s DRS scheme has been delayed until late 2023, reportedly because of COVID-19, Brexit and tax issues. A Plastics Packaging Tax will be implemented from April 2022. The rate of tax will be £200/tonne on plastic packaging that contains less than 30 percent recycled plastic and which is manufactured in or imported into the UK. The aim of the tax is to incentivise the use of recycled material in the production of plastic packaging. Those with a slightly cynical mindset might argue that it is ironic that the part of the Environment Bill that is going to be implemented first is that which generates tax revenue – but that might just be a way of thinking by some, the author included.

Pressure to perform better

Whatever the truth of the matter, the packaging industry is facing severe challenges to do more to move in the right direction in the sustainability stakes in 2022. There is pressure from all sides – from the public, the government and environmental groups to take immediate action. If we can demonstrate in the New Year that we are moving in the right direction to achieve a more circular economy then we will have achieved something positive. And we need to do this quickly because at present under 10 percent of the world`s economy is circular.

Recycling challenges

It is a fact that recycling rates for paperboard and plastics have suffered during COVID-19 times. We have simply got to see more investment in recycling infrastructure and improvements in recycling systems and technology. A demonisation of plastics is apparent far too often and this has to stop, if we are to make any progress on key issues. We have also had to contend with a Prime Minister who has recently claimed that plastic recycling “doesn`t work”, arguing it wasn`t the answer to combating plastic pollution. Combating the challenges of media misinformation, actions by some environmental groups and, now, incorrect statements by politicians means that the industry is fighting fires on too many fronts at present. The challenges we are facing with supply chain issues, shortages of materials, raw material price increases, plus the continuation of Covid-19, are bad enough. Sadly, many of these cannot be controlled, so investment in recycling technology is more vital than ever before to alleviate some of the challenges currently being faced within the industry.

Green claims face scrutiny

In my opinion, we can help to overcome some of the issues currently being faced by communicating more effectively with the media, the public and policy makers, most importantly the government. Because, despite so much negativity, the fact is that the industry is making good progress in the use and reuse of more sustainable materials. However, it seems that messages are not necessary getting through to all stakeholders. Greater education of the consumer into correct and progressive recycling of all materials, most importantly plastics, is long overdue and necessary. Consumers want more information on false or misleading claims that devalue the term sustainability. It is to be hoped the Competition & Markets Authority`s new Green Claims Code can assist in this area. The Code aims to protect consumers from misleading environmental claims amidst concerns over “greenwashing” namely overstated, unsubstantiated green credentials of a product or service. It is a good starting point because action is needed now – in the midst of a pandemic and the environmental crisis which the industry is facing.

Plastic waste report card: must do better

If I have a message for the New Year, it is that we in the packaging industry should try to show the world in 2022 that, with a holistic approach to the environment and by adopting a coherent and unified message on all these issues, we can make good progress in the year ahead. I firmly believe there is public support for radical moves to tackle plastic waste. Sadly, the UK currently does not have the infrastructure to recycle all of its plastic waste. We still export over 60 percent of our plastic packaging because there is simply not enough recycling capacity available. The need to move to a UK based resource-efficient circular economy is clearly illustrated by the appalling plastic waste figure. A report by the British Plastics Federation (BPF) in January 2021 said that if the right drivers were in place, the UK could eliminate more than half the amount of plastic waste being exported in the next 10 years. We can succeed, but there is much work to be done in 2022 and beyond to achieve demanding targets.

 

Neil Farmer
Neil Farmer, Managing Director, Neil Farmer Associates. One of the world’s leading authorities on packaging and a fellow of the Institute of Packaging. Author of Trends in Packaging of Food, Beverages and other fast-moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), published by Elsevier.

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