It’s a common complaint that a small internet purchase was delivered in a huge box – and it is putting product packaging under scrutiny as never before. Malory Davies looks at how the market is responding.
Packaging is critical to protecting goods through the logistics process, but it is increasingly unloved by consumers as sustainability rises up the political agenda. Emma Ciechan, director of sustainability at DS Smith, points out that packaging sustainability is by no means a new concern, “but it has undoubtedly come under increased focus in the past 12 months or so. Single-use plastics are at the forefront of the debate, and there is now a far heightened consumer awareness of the impact of plastic packaging on the environment. “The continued rise of e-commerce has also lead to increased consumer awareness of excess or oversized packaging – an issue that is well documented in the national media. The damage to a company’s reputation if it uses oversized packaging could be significant. Research by DS Smith found that 39 per cent of shoppers who have bought something online are concerned by excess packaging, while 15 per cent worry about how to recycle packaging. Consumer behaviour is changing as a result – and we know that people are increasingly likely to favour brands that adopt sustainable packaging,” says Ciechan. Phil Storer, UK & Ireland director for IPP Logipal, says: “Anyone who watched Blue Planet 2 cannot be anything other than outraged by the sheer profligacy of the human species, as our throw-away society has polluted our oceans and cities to the point that our obsession with convenience is endangering the health of our planet. We’ve seen protests at supermarkets where consumers are now unpackaging fresh fruit at the point of sale so that they are not having to throw it away at home. We have also seen the rise of artisan retailers offering zero-plastic packaging and the opportunity for customers to bring their own Tupperware. There has also been a ‘back-to-the-future’ revival looking back to the 1970s when we had milk delivered in glass bottles on electric vehicles.” Andrew Smedley, head of e-commerce & logistical packaging at Antalis Packaging, says “Consumers are certainly more aware of how their purchases are arriving, how they are packaged and, consequently, how much waste the packaging produces. This awareness has become particularly more prevalent in light of the BBC shining a light on packaging waste via its 2016 programme, Hugh’s War on Waste, and last year’s Blue Planet II in which it was revealed to more than 14 million viewers that a startling 8m tonnes of plastic waste ends up in our oceans. As a result, consumers are increasingly looking to buy from businesses that exercise their environmental conscience, preferring goods to be shipped in packaging which is not only easy to open, but is also recyclable and produces minimal waste at the point of disposal,” says Smedley. A recent survey of 500 consumers by HAVI, found that about two-thirds of consumers ranked ‘clean packaging’ as a very important to them, with about 70 per cent seeing it as equally or more important than clean food. Kevin Dundek, senior director, research & insights, packaging services at HAVI, points out that although there was little consensus in the response about what the term clean packaging related to – free from chemicals was most often associated. “Furthermore, two-thirds of consumers expect foodservice companies to minimise chemicals and additives in their packaging while over half expect them to provide a variety of information about their packaging – from what materials and additives are used to where the materials are sourced from.” Dundek sees an opportunity for companies to build trust with consumers by proactively developing an approach to clean packaging and clearly communicating it to consumers. “Clean packaging will have an increasing impact on consumer trust and rise up their agenda. The packaging industry is facing significant pressure to adapt to consumer preferences and should prepare for this. Ultimately, taking a proactive approach to clean packaging enables companies to tell a richer story around their supply process, further building trust with consumers at a time when they are demanding more visibility than ever before,” says Dundek. Emma Ciechan of DS Smith, points out that leading brands across all sectors have started to review their use of certain types of packaging and consider alternative, more widely recycled materials. “Companies are also aware that with sustainability and recycling increasingly on the legislative agenda globally, it’s increasingly likely that more unsustainable practices are met with penalties – so brands are being more proactive now. “For many retailers this can present challenges, particularly where certain types of packaging contribute to the appeal of a certain product. For example, black plastic trays in food packaging add a desirable premium feel, but can’t currently be recycled. Separately, plastic co-polymers provide a waterproof packaging solution and similarly create a more premium feel – will the industry therefore realistically be as willing to replace the material?” says Ciechan. Smedley points out that a raft of brands, retailers, and packaging companies, including Unilever, Coca Cola and M&S, are currently working towards 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025, or earlier where achievable. “Indeed at Antalis, we’re currently working with one large logistical firm to help them achieve complete carbon neutrality in the next five years. To achieve this, the business must eradicate all plastic, foam and non-recyclable materials from their packaging. “For packaging suppliers like us, the need to be innovative has never been greater and that’s why Antalis is continuing to push the boundaries of design, including different ways of working with stretch film, using recyclable cushioning and environmentally-friendly plastic products,” says Smedley. Phil Storer also points to proactive work by companies such as Radnor Hills, arguing that by working towards zero-landfill by the end of the year and maximising the recyclability of its plastic bottles, it is ahead of the curve and the need to regulate the industry. However, he says: “It looks as though the government will have little choice other than to get involved as its Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), reported that UK companies producing waste plastic pay one of the lowest contributions towards its recycling of any country in Europe. We expect that to change and for the growing environmental burden to become a cost burden for producers and the law of ECOnomics will apply. “The EU and the government are both looking in future for the producers to pay for the clean-up of plastics etc, to cut the land filling of more than half of the seven billion plastic bottles sold each year,” says Storer. However, it is important not to lose sight of the reason why packaging is being employed in the first place – protecting the product. “The integrity of the product is king in the supply chain, says Storer, so businesses are having to re-imagine their route to market in a way that minimises damage but boosts the sustainability of the process. “It is very straightforward for us as our ‘circular economy’ business model is based on sustainable wooden pallets which are optimised from the saw mill to the store, as well as being repaired, repatriated and returned to active duty on an regular basis. For those in the packaging business where plastics are involved, many are already engaged in looking at how to re-engineer their processes to swap out single use, where possible. We use the phrase ECOnomics – how the circular economy reduces costs over time through the employment of sustainable and reusable products and practices,” says Storer. Ciechan points out that in the food industry, adequate protection prevents food waste – a separate but equally significant global concern. “In many instances, plastics are still the best solution for product protection as they are durable, and often reusable or returnable. Another key factor in product protection is right-sized packaging. By reducing unnecessary secondary packaging, product movement is limited, helping to reduce damage. Streamline packaging creates efficiencies right across the supply chain –lowering the carbon footprint by reducing the number of delivery vehicles required and saving on storage facilities,” says Ciechan. Smedley advocates a ‘root and branch’ review of logistics operations. “This often starts with cutting out unnecessary processes such as surplus transport. We also recommend smaller or bespoke box sizes where possible so that essentially more boxes can cleverly fit on a pallet and subsequently the delivery truck. Suddenly you have less packaging actually being use, less trucks on the road, less carbon emissions – all of which helps to minimise the firm’s carbon footprint,” he says. “One of the responses to the need for more environmentally-friendly packaging is the simplification of packaging across a number of product types,” says Ciechan. “Brands are exploring opportunities to use ‘mono-materials’ or use materials that are not just recyclable in theory but widely recycled in practice. “Another trend which looks set to continue is the sizeable move towards alternative packaging materials such as paper fibre-based options. Paper-based fibre moulds are now a popular substitute for polystyrene packaging and, although not widely available or always possible, products such as wood-based fibre bottles are starting to be produced as an alternative to plastic,” says Ciechan. Phil Storer points to talk of a ‘plastic-eating’ enzyme which fights pollution caused by throw-away polyethylene terephthalate (PET). “However, this could also act to militate against developments to find sustainable packaging solutions and encourage the very bad behaviour that we are railing against. It requires a cultural shift which can only be achieved through a voluntary and regulatory ‘nudging’ towards best practice.” Smedley highlights the development of high performance corrugated products which use 30 per cent to 40 per cent less paper but are still 100 per cent recyclable and sustainable.
Who pays for green packaging
Consumers want greener packaging, but should the expect to pay more for it? “The key here is that the market will respond to what consumers want and we’ve seen a huge groundswell in people demanding environmentally-friendly packaging,” says Emma Ciechan of DS Smith. “Brands, of course, follow these trends too and in a competitive marketplace they can simultaneously improve their CSR performance and gain a competitive advantage that will translate directly into increasing sales simply by switching their packaging. That’s an incredibly powerful incentive for brands to give consumers the environmentally-friendly packaging they want,” says Ciechan. Phil Storer believes that consumers would be prepared to pay more in the short term if the benefits could be proved to be sustainable. “However, sustainable and economic are not mutually exclusive. Consumer behaviour will change to reward sustainable behaviour. Producer behaviour will evolve to follow the consumer and to seek economies. In terms of lower carbon footprint, lower fuel costs, lower packaging costs. There might even be a win-win for both sides.” But Andrew Smedley says: “I don’t think that consumers should expect to pay more. With a greater onus on businesses to incorporate greener policies into all their day-to-day operations, being more environmentally-friendly is gradually becoming the industry standard. “One of the simplest ways to achieve this is to help customers offset their carbon footprint. For instance, Antalis have a forest in Kettering where, over the next five years, we’ll be planting 14,500 trees to offset the carbon used to manufacture the boxes that our customers buy, which essentially helps them to also offset their carbon and shows we take the issue of sustainability incredibly seriously.”
Technologies to meet changing demands
Every business is different, but there are technologies that can be adopted, says Phil Storer of IPP Logipal. “Many businesses have achieved, or are working towards achieving, ISO 14001, the standard for Environmental Management Systems. This not only provides transparency as to their sustainability but is a nationally recognised accreditation for environmental best practice.” DS Smith’s Emma Ciechan points to the company’s work to help retailers design packaging that is fit for purpose. “One of these is a customisable packaging solution which enables e-tailers to manually create multiple different box sizes in a quick and easy way. The new technology, called Made2fit, is estimated to reduce void fill by 80 per cent on average, and achieve a potential cost saving of 30 per cent on inbound and outbound shipping. “Separately, our PackRight centres are aimed at improving sustainability and efficiency by analysing packaging performance right across the supply chain. This holistic, end-to-end approach is the right way to ensure that packaging’s impact is fully assessed,” says Ciechan. Andrew Smedley of Antalis, says “One area to consider is packaging automation and looking at machinery. Whether box cutting machines or mobile air cushioning systems, they can help cut down on packaging waste through increased accuracy and precision. A great example of this is the Lantech semi-automatic Q300 stretch wrapping solutions. Fitted with special mast extensions to cope with the 2.2m high crisp pallets, which makes it capable of switching to FiberFilm – the latest innovation in stretch-wrap film.”
This feature first appeared in the October issue of Logistics Manager.