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Packaging is still key in our drive to a more sustainable economy

Having just returned from the Rio+20 summit, it is clear that the baton is being passed to business to accelerate the sustainability agenda.  What better time to consider the role of packaging, not as problem but as a solution to the broader issues we face.

Yet how many of us in the Western world think twice about the packaging behind a product we want to buy? My guess is we don’t because it is not packaging that is sold to consumers – products are.

How long then can we sustain lifestyles that offer the luxury of choice in a world that is becoming so resource constrained? As consumers when we seek choice, value for money, or aesthetics, we don’t think about the importance and role packaging has - in food preservation and prolonging product life, for example.

In our report, Sustainable Packaging: Myth or Reality we engaged the views of some of the world’s biggest players from Diageo, M&S, Nestle, ACE, Rexham, Proctor & Gamble, INCPEN and the Packaging Federation to find out what the real drivers in business were.

They told us that sustainable packaging as a stand-alone concept no longer exists. Instead businesses are striving to reduce the overall impact of their products throughout the entire supply chain - and packaging has a huge role to play. What is the use of fresh food going rotten early because the packaging input was lowered to reduce its waste? With packaging the law of “unintended consequences” is very real.

Of course the afterlife of the packaging must be considered, but recycling alone should not be its single salvation.  We need to look at how we can reduce, reuse, recycle and ensure where possible packaging is recoverable.

Rexham, one of the world’s leading consumer packaging companies, produces 60 billion cans a year and is a leading example of closing the material to material loop on products. After efficiency drives in materials, energy and costs were factored, it made enough savings to run the equivalent of two of its factories for free.

We also partnered with international hospitality group Accor to undertake a complete lifecycle of its entire hotel supply chain. Accor, which operates 4,200 hotels in 90 countries and works with some 2,800 suppliers identified the environmental impact of key issues such as energy and water all along their value chain so that they could create a strategy to drive a more sustainable business.

The report also shows there is a two-fold impact on business. Many of these industries, packaging and food for example are ripe for the next capital investment. Having a sustainability framework like the one PwC talks about means they can produce a much more, resource efficient chain which will show a return on investment more quickly.   The key is to identify ways to reduce impact whilst increasing value.

Food security and waste in developed countries is also a growing issue and not something that we, in the UK can be ignorant about. Modern packaging and distribution methods in the UK enable food wastage in the supply chain to be at levels of just 3%- compared to more than 40% in countries such as Russia and India. In the UK however, once the consumer has bought our produce we bin over a third!

Take bananas and bacon for example, two staple foods for many of us. Clever packaging technology with ethylene and oxygen scavengers ensures they protect not only the food within, but the surround food in our fruit bowl or fridge.

Plant-derived plastics from non petro-chemical sources will be part of the mix going forward in the competitive new technologies race and the development of fibril cellulose by paper manufacturer UPM, as stated in our report, will be an innovation for us all to watch.

Whilst the term “sustainable packaging” could now be redundant, the focus on packaging in the drive to a more sustainable economy and lifestyle has never been greater.

Malcolm Preston, head of sustainability, PwC

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