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41 per cent of goods bought online are over-packaged, according to a recent survey. No wonder the pressure is on to become more environmentally aware. Alex Leonards investigates…

This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, February 2017.

This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, February 2017.

Whether it’s our preferred cereal, favourite perfume, a gift or kitchen appliance, packaging is fundamental to the retail market and industries beyond.

But now that there is a clear global consciousness about the environmental impact of overproduction, excess and wastage, packaging has an even bigger role to play in the wider world.

Only last month Unilever has committed to ensuring that all of its plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. And it called on the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry to accelerate progress towards the circular economy.

“The packaging industry is under constant scrutiny over the environmental impact of materials,” says Jason Inwood, managing director of Woodway UK. “As e-commerce and click & collect continue to grow, the green credentials of packaging are increasingly important.”

Consumers are particularly concerned about the recyclability of packaging. According to a 2016 survey by Woodway, 72 per cent of consumers felt that recyclability was important.

“Last year we saw increased requests for FSC certified products as well as enquiries into closed loop recycling,” says Inwood. “Alongside this is the need to ensure there is clear messaging on the products so the end-user knows whether a product can be recycled and whether it has come from an ethical and sustainable source.

“These considerations show an increasing awareness by the packaging industry to demonstrate environmental responsibility, a trend we anticipate will continue into 2017 and beyond.”

Laurel Granville from Macfarlane Packaging agrees. “In our experience, businesses expect packaging suppliers to consider recyclability and the environmental impact of the products they supply,” she says. “The industry is expected to source sustainable material where appropriate.”

Macfarlane is currently looking at the packing process of its customers to reduce the amount of material used.

“Easy open and tamper evident packs are also becoming increasingly important in the market, this has been driven in part by the 40 million unboxing videos that can be found on YouTube,” says Granville. “Excess packaging can be the source of many irritations and seen as wasteful.”

A survey on unboxing by Macfarlane found that 41 per cent of products ordered online had arrived over-packaged.

“This is really becoming a focus for businesses and individuals alike as everyone is environmentally conscious, we all have to dispose of packaging responsibly whether it be in the blue bin at home or in the designated skip at our place of work,” says Granville.

“A regular complaint that shoppers level at online retailers is the use of excessive packaging – this is a challenge the packaging sector is extremely aware of and is working hard to address,” says Mick Thornton from DS Smith UK. “However, when you consider the breadth of the product range offered by online retailers, and as a result the almost infinite combinations of products purchased and shipped together, you can start to understand why this is a complex issue for the packaging industry and one that DS Smith takes incredibly seriously.”

David Hayward, CEO of Boxsizer, says that as well as reducing the amount of excess packaging, looking towards cardboard-only packaging would be a significant approach to delivering a more environmentally friendly industry.

“The first port of call needs to be to reduce excess packaging before considering the recycling,” he says. “There are technologies out there that reduce the size of the dispatch carton to suit the product in side.

“Typically saving around 30 per cent excess packaging materials.”

Macfarlane’s Granville makes the point that there are monetary benefits for companies meeting their corporate responsibility targets. She says it’s a win-win situation, because as the amount of packaging decreases, so does the price of the packaging and transport costs.

Hayward agrees that businesses are becoming more in tune with the environmental issues associated with excess packaging due to the cost impacts.

“More and more companies have sustainability on their radar also caused in fact by a surge in importance of their end users,” says Jeroen Van Oosterhout of Ranpak Europe. “The majority of the firms are not yet willing to pay for it but, ceteris paribus, they will choose the greener solution.”

The importance of a recyclable solution for companies in the industry is slowly growing.

“The corrugate market has made some terrific inroads in delivering strength and durability which means less material can be used to offer the same amount of protection,” says Granville. “Traditionally polystyrene, which can be difficult for consumers to recycle can be replaced with air packaging.

“Air packaging is made of recyclable or, sometimes, biodegradable film, and can be deflated when no longer required and recycled.”

And now, stretch wrap manufacturers are delivering lower micron performance stretch films which are able to offer a material saving and at the same time deliver the performance levels of higher micron.

“The easiest way to ensure a high recycling rate is to use materials that are recycled curb-side like paper and cardboard,” says Oosterhout. “Specifically when companies use mono-materials (for example a cardboard box with a paper filler) it is easier for consumers as they do not have to go to the hassle of separating the materials.”


In recent years, changes to how we do our shopping have completely transformed the way products are reaching our homes, and in turn the way packaging companies design their products.

“2016 has seen a huge increase in the number of people shopping online and this has in turn created a big challenge for the packaging industry,” says DS Smith’s Mick Thornton. “In 2015, the total online revenue in Europe was worth €455.3 billion and this is growing at a rate of 12 per cent each year, so the potential is huge.”

Of course this means that consumer’s expectations are heightened.

“…consumers [are]wanting immediate turnarounds, as well as the in store experience in the home,” adds Thornton.

According Boxsizer’s David Hayward, the current trend is showing a 20 per cent increase in e-commerce year on year. “… mobile technology and ease of access is to products online means we can access the products we require 24 hours per day,” he says.

Macfarlane Packaging’s Laurel Granville says that one of the biggest challenges for the packaging industry is designing packages that are fit for purpose to endure the rigours of the postal system and are operationally efficient to pack.

“Items that were traditionally off the shelf and transported home with the greatest of loving care are now having to reach their destination in the back of a van,” she says. At Macfarlane, and across the packaging market, often the chief goal is to create packaging that is lightweight, and a good fit for the product.

“Fit for purpose implies that the packaging is specifically designed for the products the packaging is protecting, not too big, no over packing and consideration of the environmental impact,” adds Granville.

Ranpak Europe’s Jeroen Van Oosterhout says that packaging is always striving to protect products, keep them fresh, inform customers, influencing their buying decisions while at the same time trying to wow them – at a low cost. “In this day of rising online spending, helping companies meet deadlines and cut-off times while ensuring a perfect unboxing experience is of major importance,” he says. “Packaging speed is of the essence as customers’ expectations are ever increasing.

“Next day delivery, and even same-day delivery are becoming common ground in e-commerce.”

The rise of online shopping is prompting many of the new trends happening in the packaging market.

“…for example returnable packs and packaging that can convey the value of the brand,” says Granville. “When you shop in a retail outlet you get the full experience of the brand, it’s not always the same when you shop online so we are working on ways to deliver that brand experience through all of the packaging – not just the product box but the outer shipping pack too.”

E-commerce is also pushing companies to implement automation, and to look for speed and optimisation in a customer journey at every stage of a product’s journey.

“That also includes fast delivery, good protection; great unboxing and easy return policies,” says Oosterhout.

DS Smith’s Thornton says that another significant challenge the e-commerce market presents to strategists is the complexity of the supply cycle.

“ There are up to 50 touch-points in the e-commerce supply cycle and potentially 50 separate opportunities at which a package is handled by a machine or by human hands and, crucially, each of these points can bring their own, unique risks,” he says. “Whether it’s something as simple as a package being returned to a depot several times following a delivery failure or the more futuristic vulnerabilities created by a delivery via drone, as DHL is already doing with medical supplies in Germany, packaging needs to be structurally sound and more adaptable than ever before.”

DS Smith has recently invested in a testing facility that replicates the e-commerce cycle. This enables it to find packaging that has the strength to protect products throughout its journey.

“ Many e-commerce retailers are turning to the packaging industry to help them review and address the complexities of the e-commerce supply chain,” says Thornton.

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