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Why more packaging means less waste

Dan Rogerson

…on the dangers of squeezing the packaging industry too hard

Of course we should focus on reducing packaging in the waste stream. But to be truly efficient, we should also recognise and appreciate the merits of packaging and acknowledge that it is overwhelmingly a sustainable resource solution rather than a problem.

Of packaging’s many functions - protection, hygiene, a platform for information and branding - its most important is cradling our precious products through the supply chain, delivering them intact to consumers and ensuring that as little as possible is wasted. By doing this job so well, a small amount of targeted packaging can produce a large resource saving. For example, a cucumber unwrapped will be unsaleable after three days, but wrapped in just 1.5g of packaging, it can last 14 days.

The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment estimates that packaging protects 10 times more resources than it uses, with the carbon impact of the protected product dwarfing the packaging used to protect it.

It is only when packaging comes off the product it protects and into the hands of the consumer that it becomes a highly visible, seemingly useless and an over-engineered solution. And it is at this point that packaging gains its bad reputation.

“Incpen estimates that packaging protects 10 times more resources than it uses”

Yet at the beginning of the packaging lifecycle, the industry is a fervent recycler and re-user of materials, raising the UK’s packaging waste recycling record over 20 years from 28% in 1998 to 65% in 2008. Packaging itself also appears to have high recycling rates: 18% of household waste comprises packaging yet only 3% of landfill is made up of packaging.

We must understand the industry’s importance in delivering a resource-efficient economy. Packaging could be considered a green industry, saving food waste while providing markets for recycled materials.

The packaging industry also has economic importance. The manufacturing packaging sector employs 85,000 people
and is responsible for 3% of the UK’s manufacturing output. Meanwhile, domestic materials reprocessing infrastructure is desperately needed to capture more packaging materials that are otherwise exported to other countries.

There are dangers that we are squeezing the packaging industry too hard. Tough carbon floor pricing, fluctuating energy prices, diversification of local authority collection methods and emotive language over the environmental effects of packaging combine to disadvantage the UK’s packaging industry against its international competition. The drive for the zero-waste economy we want to achieve must not be at the cost of an innovative and dynamic industry that is best regulated within our own economy.

We need to encourage greater dialogue between the packaging industry and the Government. Enhanced communication between politicians at a European level is needed to ensure our domestic industry is on a level playing field with international competitors. And better communication needs to occur to stress the resource-efficient role of packaging to the Government and society, and ensure we are making policy on an informed and scientific basis rather than public misconception.

Dan Rogerson is Lib-Dem MP for North Cornwall, co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group and chairman of the Packaging APPG

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