Sustainable packaging a myth

SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING is “no longer relevant” as a term, according to a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.


The report, ‘Sustainable packaging: myth or reality’, concludes: “The idea that anyone from the key stakeholder groups can come up with a single meaningful definition of sustainable packaging is largely proving to be a red herring and has been consigned to history. The reality is that it has been substituted with a more balanced view of efficient packaging.”


The packaging industry has long-argued that focusing on packaging alone in the sustainability debate is short-sighted and counterproductive. However, many food companies and retailers have seized upon it as a marketing tool to promote progress on sustainability.


But things are changing and PwC packaging expert Maya Bankovich said the thinking has “moved on”. She explained: “Companies are beginning to work together to ensure that the supply chain, rather than just the packaging, is sustainable. The educated stakeholders we spoke to understand the place packaging has in the supply chain and many are beginning to relent on the insistence for ‘greener’ packaging.”


The research is the third in a series of surveys (following those in 2008 and 2010) carried out among a controlled group of NGOs, FMCGs, packaging producers and retailers. The findings have been welcomed.


AEA practice director for waste management resource efficiency Adam Read said the report “has captured the debate and mood very well. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the use of the term efficient packaging which is probably a more accurate reflection of the drive and direction in the sector.”


New packaging materials, improved efficiency processes and ‘smart design’ products are all helping improve the image of packaging across the supply chain, said the report.


PwC’s global sustainability leader, Malcolm Preston, said the report showed how fast-paced the industry is in developing new technologies but “we need to stop using the phrase sustainable packaging. The industry is working towards efficient products, efficient packaging, efficient transport and efficient end of life solutions,” he added.


Nestlé head of packaging, Anne Roulin, said that companies were working to find “the sweet spot” where consumer needs, environmental impact, technical and business capabilities merge.


But there was evidence of tension, largely between FMCG companies and retailers, with the latter making what some companies viewed as excessive data demands as they seek evidence of everything from carbon footprinting to ethical sourcing.


Compromises have been made, however, with benefits being shared through the supply chain. In the corrugated packaging industry, for example, there has been a move to substitute virgin materials with recycled ones resulting in “significant” financial benefits that are shared among those involved.


A national shortage of packaging technicians, fears over scarcity of raw material supplies and a lack of political will to tackle the core issues were all also voiced in the report. Jane Bickerstaffe, chief executive at the packaging organisation INCPEN, said:


“The industry is streets ahead of the Government in the work it is doing but politicians are only interested in packaging once its lifecycle has ended. Government needs to understand it isn’t all about recycling. Packaging only makes up around 5% of landfill waste and 2% of greenhouse gas emissions and issues such as food waste and rise in consumption of products should be much bigger concerns.”