Plastic has been taking a pasting in the media, largely because of coverage of ocean litter. The most notable has been the BBC TV’s Blue Planet II, which showed a dead whale calf being carried around by its mother. David Attenborough’s script said the mother’s milk could have been poisoned by contaminants absorbed by plastics and consumed by the whales.
The scientific evidence is strong and the consequence has been a plastics backlash, particularly packaging materials discarded by a global negligence. Broadcaster Sky has stridently campaigned against ocean litter, and chancellor Philip Hammond said in his recent Budget that he would consider a tax regime to reduce plastic waste. Accordingly, the UK’s plastics industry is mounting a public relations campaign.
So it was against that toxic backdrop that I attended an event in the House of Lords to consider packaging design and resource efficiency. At one level, the discussion is on how better design can improve both recycling and the efficient use and reuse of materials. In this ‘anti-plastic’ atmosphere, the very value of brands could be at stake.
The meeting was arranged on behalf of two special interest groups in Westminster: the All- Party Sustainable Resource Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group. But the agenda was set by the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen), whose members include some of the biggest names in the packaging supply chain, including Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and DS Smith.
Its chief executive is Paul Vanston, who took over this year after more than 20 years in the local authority recycling sector. It was a move which suggested Incpen was recognising more than ever the challenge of the responsibility of producers to sustainability issues.
Vanston, who was a panellist at the Westminster event, had five days earlier been at a round-table at which environment secretary Michael Gove set out goals of greater recycling and recyclability. He wants to look at incentivising both producers and consumers, the problems of ‘on-the-go’ living and increasing awareness from all members of the value chain.
“Everyone was agreed that materials should not be ending up in our oceans where they can cause harm,” Vanston said afterwards. “My feeling is we probably have the best opportunity in years for our sectors to come together and settle on agreements that meet the secretary of state’s challenges to us, as well as fix a fair bit of what we all feel needs updating in several areas.”
Fellow panellist Dorothy Mackenzie, chair of the Dragon Rouge design and innovation consultancy and a non-executive director of the Carbon Trust, said that sustainability had never been more on the corporate agenda, and more product design briefs sought resource efficiency. But the trend to greater buying on impulse and the on-the-go culture mean that designers were under great pressure to influence consumers at the point of sale as a priority.
But she said that milennials – people born in the last two decades of the 20th century – were more likely to be receptive to sustainable purchasing.
“There is a growing reason to build in sustainability and communicate that message. The challenge is to convert intention into behaviour,” she said, citing Proctor & Gamble’s ‘good news story’ of using plastic ocean litter in products. She also noted the trend for greater acceptability of products using secondary materials than had been the case 25 years ago.
“Packaging designers tend to come from a design background and have no industrial background. I am upset we have let that slip.”
Kevin Vyse, M&S
From the audience, Kevin Vyse, who leads for Marks & Spencer on food packaging, was concerned that modern education failed to reference the industrial element of a product. In the past, postgraduate designers were placed in factories to understand the entire process.
“Packaging designers tend to come from a design background and have no industrial background. I am upset we have let that slip. Brunel has just shut a course because there are not enough people being pushed in this direction,” he said.
Vanston pointed out that German universities ran courses in packaging with sustainability as a key element.
Lee Marshall, chief executive of Larac, said that designers who were saving waste by innovation – for example in food packaging – were doing an “amazing” job.
“But the bit missing in the chain is that packaging should be easily recyclable,” he said. “We need to move that element up the brief to make the circle more complete. Innovations are outpacing recycling systems.”
He argued that regulation provided such an opportunity for innovation. If the rules changed to put more onus on producers to provide greater recyclability of their products, “business people will find a way”.
Marcus Gover, chief executive of WRAP, emphasised the role of smart food packaging in cutting waste: plastic film costing a few pence protecting expensive steak, for example. He had calculated that the carbon ‘cost’ of the 60% of food wasted in households was equivalent to the carbon emissions of all the lorries on UK roads in a year.
Across the range of packaging materials, he said, UK recycling rates of 60-70% was good but plastic was “well behind”, and brand owners, retailers, manufacturers, recyclers and consumers had a role. He agreed that regulation also had to play a part.
“People say to me ‘there should be a law against over-packaging’. Actually, there is – the law says that packaging should be designed, produced and commercialised in such a way that it permits recovery to minimise the impact on the environment.”
The key for Gover was finding markets for recycled packaging. Those for PET and HDPE bottles had developed sufficiently during the past decade for the former to be worth £150 per tonne and the latter £350. Other plastics, such as pots, tubs and trays, could find good markets and ought to be developed, while there was an argument that those with only limited market potential, such as polystyrene, should be avoided as packaging materials.
There was now scope for recycling black food trays because of the work done by WRAP and others to establish a viable scheme, he added.
Many voices in the industry, including MRW, have called on ministers to back ‘pull’ incentives, such as VAT relief on producers who used recycled materials in their products. But WRAP has long been an advocate of this being achieved through voluntary sector deals based on business cases and the leadership shown by pioneering companies. “Coca-Cola has shown that a lot can happen without legislation. It has a long history of making change because people want it,” Gover said.
He was optimistic about the efforts of some large retailers to seek packaging made from single rather than composite materials.
“We have to work together. We can’t have lots of different initiatives going off. Plastics should be seen as part of the solution and less of the problem,” he said, adding that WRAP wanted to align itself with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative and its vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste.
Marshall argued that the current system laid too much emphasis on packaging recycling rather than producer responsibility, with producers in the UK making significantly lower contributions to the cost of recycling compared with other EU countries. He also pointed out that three changes to packaging regulations had reduced the administrative costs for producers, but there had been nothing similar to offset the costs to local authorities for collecting waste packaging.
“We have packaging recycling but not producer responsibility. That is not a criticism of those here in the room or certain parts of the chain. That’s the way the regulations were implemented. This is about what we have got and what we have to work with,” he said. “If we want true producer responsibility then we need a new packaging system, not just reform.”
Gover said consumers and householders paid in the end because, even if producers contributed more or were taxed, that would be passed on. He said the most crucial aspect was agreement on the best way of designing products and collecting and recycling them.
Vanston said the mood between producers, councils and recyclers was now more collaborative but that had to be translated into action: “Time is against us but we need cross-sector discussions to happen quite quickly. I’m not sure about the immediate future [referring to China’s import restrictions] but if we all make a little sacrifice, we will go a long way.”
Case Study: Coca-Cola
In October 2017, Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) launched an initiative in partnership with the University of Reading, coinciding with the start of the academic year. The programme combines a new generation of smart Coca-Cola fountain dispensers (known as Coca-Cola Freestyle machines) with refillable micro-chipped containers.
These containers interact with the dispenser technology, allowing students and staff to buy all their soft drinks in reusable bottles. The bespoke and customisable bottles, manufactured by Whirley-Drinks Works, can be purchased at the university, allowing students to help themselves to refills at eight locations around the campus.
One term into the trial, CCEP says that great progress has been made towards eliminating packaging waste from drinks on campus. The university has noticed a positive uptake, selling almost 2,000 bottles so far.
Both CCEP and the University of Reading are continuing to monitor the impact that the initiative is having on recycling and littering of soft drinks packaging on campus and say they are encouraged by the pilot.
Case Study: RCP
RPC is one of Europe’s leading plastic recyclers, reprocessing more than 70,000 tonnes of waste from industrial, commercial, agricultural and domestic sources into useful and relevant second-life applications.
The company pioneered the reprocessing of highly contaminated agricultural waste, using the recovered material to develop The Green Sack, which is now a leading refuse sack brand in the UK.
Recycled material is also used in the production of the company’s innovative range of Plaswood outdoor products and plastic lumber that provide a no-maintenance, sustainable and cost-effective alternative to using traditional materials such as concrete, steel and wood.
Elsewhere within the group, a wide variety of other products including storage boxes, wheelie bins, watering cans, planters and other garden products are all manufactured in 100% recycled plastic.
RPC also led the introduction of paint pots incorporating 25% post-consumer recycled plastic, and recently took part in a trial to explore the viability of establishing a closed-loop system for the collection and recycling of plastic paint containers.