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'Sustainable packaging' irrelevant says report

The term “sustainable packaging” has become irrelevant to the industry and should be ditched, a study says.

The UK packaging industry is calling for the phrase to be scrapped and is urging government to tackle the real issues affecting the industry, including maximising sustainability throughout the entire supply chain, a report from PwC says.

The report also highlights industry concerns about a skills shortage in the packaging sector and scarcity of raw materials.

Retailers, manufacturers and consumer groups including the Packaging Federation, INCPEN, Diageo, Boots, P&G, Nestle and Rexam, were interviewed for the report.

It concludes that the debate about good versus bad packaging has moved on. The report says: “Sustainable packaging was used as an umbrella term to cover many aspects of sustainability and as such, is deemed too broad a term to be useful at a practical level. 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.”

Sustainable packaging has been substituted with a more balanced view of efficient packaging, the report concludes. This includes producing effective packaging  with minimum resources, protecting the product and minimising product waste, transport efficiency and display efficiency, as well as effective after use disposal and recycling.

The factors affecting the evolution of efficient packaging will include the cost of materials, breakthroughs in new technologies, security of supply, consumer demand for convenience and tackling falling consumer spending.

PwC’s global sustainability leader, Malcolm Preston, said: “The conclusions in the report show how fast-paced the industry is in developing new technologies and the use of exciting materials 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.

“Plant derived plastics from non petro-chemical sources will be part of the mix, along with intelligent packaging and the drive will be to make the entire supply chain more efficient. It is time now for Government and industry to engage in a cycle of collaboration to tackle the issues raised in our report.”

Packaging Federation chief executive Dick Searle welcomed the report, saying it was a quite a brave step for the industry to admit that sustainable packaging doesn’t actually exist. It is no more than a red herring. The next step is for us to work to ensure we have a resource efficient economy and tackle the rise in consumption and appalling levels of food waste.”

Jane Bickerstaffe, chief executive of international packaging research organisation INCPEN, said a shortage of skilled packaging technicians in the UK is becoming a problem.

“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,” she said. “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 should be much bigger concerns.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • I never liked the expression sustainable packaging and we should weep no tears if the expression dies. One of the reasons why the end of life of packaging assumed such prominence was the need to meet both the packaging and landfill directives. Local authorities felt - still do - that local taxpayers ended up paying an unfair share of the cost of recovering packaging which should have been a producer responsibility. I support what the industry is proposing in relation to efficient packaging but these cost issues still need to be addressed.

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