Packaging and recycling: Going full circle

LinkedIn +

As businesses and consumers become more environmentally aware, packaging manufactures and retailers have had to respond accordingly. Maria Highland reports…

Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact they are having on the environment, especially the impact plastic packaging waste has on the world and all its inhabitants. And retailers and packaging manufactures are now stepping up to the challenge and catering to more environmentally friendly supply chain practices as they meet consumer demands for sustainable packaging solutions.

“The war on plastic waste has become increasingly vocal and has turned into an ongoing debate with massive media coverage, and the reaction from some e-commerce and retailers within supply chains has been to seek a move away from plastics entirely,” says Storopack managing director Richard Pulfrey.

We have seen retailers like Co-op switch out its single-use plastic carrier bags in favour of compostable carrier bag to reduce its overall use of plastic packaging within five years. 60 million plastic carrier bags will be removed in a phased rollout as part Co-op’s new ethical strategy.

The new compostable bags can be used to carry shopping home and then be re-used as food waste caddy liners as they are accepted in food waste collections. The bags are “a simple but ingenious way to provide an environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic shopping bags,” noted Co-op retail chief executive Jo Whitfield.

Pulfrey points out  that “we mustn’t forget there is a justification and many benefits too for continuing to use plastics.  Plastics are lightweight and durable, and their ability to be used multiple times can prevent single use of other valuable resources.” Therefore, “what does need to improve however, is accessibility to easily recycle these plastics and invest more heavily in the circular economy,” states Pulfrey.

And this is exactly what retailers and packaging providers have started doing. The Co-op’s own-brand packaging will become easy to recycle by 2023, as it aims to use a minimum of 50 per cent recycled plastic in bottles, pots, trays and punnets by 2021. All own-brand black and dark plastic packaging, including black ready meal trays, will be eliminated by 2020 as part of its ethical strategy.

Vegetarian meat substitute manufacturer Quorn altered its packaging strategy after WRAP disclosed that black packaging was being sent to landfills rather than being recycled in 2017. Since April 2018, a majority of Quorn packing has phased out the use of black packaging and is striving towards its goal of being a leader in sustainable nutrition with 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging by 2025.

And Costa Coffee now pays a £70 per tonne supplement to coffee cup waste collectors to boost recycling rates to 100 million, versus the current level of 14 million, following a report by MPs calling for a 25p tax on disposable cups and a total ban by 2023 if they are not all being recycled.

Currently collectors receive £50 per tonne for cups and Costa believes that pushing that up to £120 will make it viable for them to put in place the infrastructure to process more cups as there are currently only three sites in the UK than can process them due to the plastic lining.

Costa is responsible for 500 million cups a year – one fifth of the 2.5 billion total. It aims to recycle all 500 million by 2020. Costa managing director Dominic Paul can see “no reason why all takeaway cups could not be recycled by as early as 2020,” if other coffee chains sign up.

Likewise, Tesco has promised to reduce the amount of packaging used in its business and aims to move to a closed loop system. It has pledged to remove, reduce and redesign packaging materials and their use and to raise awareness around the importance of recycling to help change customer behaviour.

“We will work with our suppliers to redesign and reduce all packaging materials and after consultation with our leading suppliers earlier this year we will remove all packaging that is hard to recycle from our business by 2019,” Tesco chief product officer Jason Tarry told suppliers at an Institute of Grocery Distribution event.

This then pushes the point that this is a team effort. “Packaging companies are supporting businesses to understand the total environmental impact associated with their packaging operation,” says Macfarlane Packaging marketing director Laurel Granville.

Cutting the environmental costs hidden in all packaging operations requires looking at a number of areas in the supply chain, says Granville. This includes storage, transport damages and returns, administration costs and productivity.

A major issue is transport, and we’ve all seen it: items arriving in packaging which is too big for it. “Products packed in “fit for purpose” packaging will not only reduce the amount of packaging material used, they take less space on delivery vehicles = fewer vehicle movements = reduced CO2 emissions,” points out Granville.

Next, returns come hand in hand with packaging, especially in the face of an e-commerce driven consumer market. Granville notes that damages and returns is another area that needs to be assess for hidden environmental costs: “Returnable packaging – the same packaging can be reused for returns, encouraging multiple use and limiting packaging waste. The right-size, fit-for-purpose packaging offers the optimum protection in transit and ensures only as much packaging material as needed is used to secure products in transit,” says Granville. And “if packaging is not “fit for purpose”, damages can occur resulting in reworking products, additional packaging used for original and return journey and additional transport.”

This is particularly useful for industries where returns are high, for example in fashion. “Many retailers are looking for packaging solutions that can withstand multiple journeys to try to reduce the amount of packaging they use. This allows them to send out replacement products to customers without having to use unnecessary packing materials,” continues Granville.

She also adds that automating packaging processes can help with reducing waste, “auto bagging, auto boxing and other automated packaging solutions measure how much packaging material is required to pack each item, keeping wastage to minimum,” she says. Once identified, the company can begin to eliminate avoidable costs to the environment.

Packaging process can be refined at various stages to drive maximum environment savings. But it is not up to retailers and packaging manufacturers alone, consumers must be willing to recycle after that final mile delivery is made. Companies can make this incentive more accessible for consumers by providing clear instructions on how to responsibly dispose of packaging.

Often the challenge lies with communication: “Many consumers struggle to understand what can and cannot be recycled and this is not helped by the vast differences across different councils in the UK. By providing consumers with clear communication of the environmental credentials of each packaging product enables them to dispose of the item in the most appropriate and sustainable way,” explains Granville.

Storopack’s Pulfrey builds upon this, pointing out that  “with the multitude of information now available in the public domain, a major concern for consumers is what items are appropriate for plastic waste recycling, where to recycle, and are bio based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics more environmentally friendly than plastic.”

The challenge then becomes “wading through the minefield of information and increasing consumer awareness through education about how different products should be treated for recycling, and the benefits and drawbacks of bio based, biodegradable and compostable plastics versus plastics,” he says.

“Biodegradable, compostable and home compostable packaging is popular due to the belief it is a direct environmentally friendly replacement for plastics, but it is only beneficial if it is disposed of properly and compostable facilities in the UK are not yet widespread enough. Biodegradable materials that end up in landfill or recycling, creates a detrimental effect on the environment rather than helping it.”

And, agreeing with Pulfrey, Granville adds: “many of the plastics used are recyclable but have to be taken to specific recycling centres to do so, which is an inconvenience to the consumer. If items can be recycled at home this would drastically improve plastic recycling rates.”

This can all be overcome by ensuring that as much accurate informational as possible is available about the product.

However, the high-profile nature of the war on plastics makes this the ideal time to enforce change. Pulfrey believes that now “is the time to achieve real progress through engaging and changing public behaviour to not only reduce the unnecessary use of plastics but to also reduce the impact of plastics on the environment and the world’s oceans.” However, he stresses that this must be a joint venture and needs “to be supported through government investment in the UK’s recycling infrastructure and facilities, as we need the capability to recover and recycle more materials.”

“There are also opportunities to change the way we go about business,” continues Pulfrey. “The circular economy approach supports sustainability by efficient use of resources being kept in the loop for as long as possible rather than the linear “make, use and dispose of” strategy.” And we are already seeing retailers like Tesco employ this closed loop system.

“We are seeing leading companies announce investments in new projects to provide new innovative materials that ensure their products and packaging are easier to recycle, and plans to work towards providing sustainable alternatives. This direction will help develop the market for recycled materials, but it is important this is actioned now,” says Pulfrey.

Indeed, companies are already looking for innovative ways to reduce their environmental impact through its packaging use and waste. Macfarlane Packaging, for example, is using eco-friendly alternatives to air cushioning such as Pacplan AirWave uses a film that is made from the waste by-products of the potato processing industry making the product household-bio-compostable.

MacFarlane also uses Gummed Paper tape as an eco-friendly alternative to polypropylene tapes. It is made from natural, sustainable materials and does not need to be removed from boxes before recycling.

Likewise, Ranpak has devised a new WrapPak Protector solution insulate boxes for ambient, chilled and frozen products for up to 48 hours that is recyclable, renewable and biodegradable. “This is a simple and more sustainable solution that reduces costs, saves space and minimizes overall handling requirements, compared with traditional systems. WrapPak Protector uses waved papers that suit many different box sizes and packaging configurations, for a truly flexible packaging environment,” explained Ranpack product manager Dan Roumen.

Nestlé has gone as far as setting up a packaging research institute to focus on the development of recyclable, biodegradable or compostable polymers, functional paper, as well as new packaging concepts and technologies to increase the recyclability of plastic packaging. The Institute will be located in Lausanne, Switzerland, and employ around 50 people.

Chief technology officer Stefan Palzer said, “packaging plays a crucial role in helping us deliver safe and nutritious products to our consumers. The new Institute of Packaging Sciences will enable us to accelerate the redesign of our packaging solutions. Cutting-edge science as well as a close collaboration with globally leading academic institutions and industrial partners will deliver a pipeline of highly performing environmentally friendly packaging solutions.”

Joining the packaging revolution, Smurfit Kappa has launched a Better Planet Packaging Design Challenge, calling for the world’s innovation community to contribute to the development of the sustainable packaging solutions of the future.

The competition seeks to develop an alternative for the plastic stretch wrap which is used around pallets to provide stability during transport and storage and to develop a fully paper-based parcel with thermal protection. The competition closes on Friday 29th March 2019.

According a European Commission Report: A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, packaging accounts for almost 40% of the demand for plastic in Europe. “Packaging design has an essential role to play in reducing the amount of waste generated in day-to-day life, and in delivering a more sustainable future,” said Smurfit Kappa VP of innovation and development Arco Berkenbosch.

“Our Better Planet Packaging Design Challenge aims to inspire the world’s design community to work on concrete problems in sustainable packaging design. We are looking forward to seeing the applications, and discovering the first winning innovations of the Better Planet Packaging Design Challenge.”


Internet Fusion Group

Online outdoor-pursuits specialist retailer Internet Fusion Group has invested in a customised automated packaging which is environmentally conscious from Neopost Shipping.

Previously, the Internet Fusion Group has been manually packing at high volumes into fibreboard boxes. However, the match was often far from exact and void-fillers were required to cushion the goods. This resulted in unnecessary use of materials, wasted shipping volume, and warehouse space taken up with storing a variety of box sizes.

Neopost Shipping installed two CVP-500 automated packaging machines at Internet Fusion Group’s shared 146,000 sq ft Kettering warehouse.

The CVP-500 machines use recyclable fibreboard. Likewise, the machines can pack multiple items for a single order in the same time as it takes to pack one item, enabling one operator to pack single or multiple items into a fit-to-size box at a rate of up to 450 packages per hour.

This lower shipping volumes and materials, such as void-fillers and fibreboard, thus reducing CO2 emissions. “The two machines were installed in August 2018 and in their first month of operation they produced over 50,000 fit-to-size parcels,” said Internet Fusion Group head of sustainability Adam Hall.

“The first rule of sustainability is reduce… and when you reduce, you save money as well,” continued Hall. “In terms of shipping volumes, our calculations indicate that the two machines will offer a reduction of 92 truck-loads a year, due to the space savings of fit-to-size packaging. So that’s 92 fewer trucks on the road,” he added.

“Before we had a series of pack benches with cardboard boxes and gum tape and we used 100% recycled paper void filling. With the CVP-500 boxes are cut to size, which means we no longer need paper void filling – so reducing resources needed and costs. And the machines speed up that packing time, freeing up the guys for other activities rather than packing.”



This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, February 2019


Share this story: