The problem with plastic

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The environment impact of plastic waste is becoming even more critical following China’s import ban, and packaging manufacturers have never been under more pressure to find a solution. Alexandra Leonards reports…

Excessive packaging is not a foreign concept – not for those living in societies where fruit and vegetables are enveloped in several layers, or two different types of plastic. It’s a tricky reality that has haunted packaging designers and manufacturers for many years. But finding the strategy needed to solve the alarming volumes of packaging waste produced in the UK has never been more paramount than it is today, in 2018.
Nearly two-thirds of the UK’s plastic waste is sent to China for recycling. Last year alone the UK exported 516,338 tonnes of plastic packaging waste for reprocessing, according figures by the Environmental Agency.
It is the strong reliance on China for recycling that will see those responsible for the design and manufacture of UK plastic packaging having a tough twelve months ahead. Already tasked with a governmental obligation to reduce the amount of packaging produced, reduce how much packaging waste goes to landfill and to increase the amount of packaging waste that’s recycled or recovered, the market must now come to terms with China’s ban on the import of waste for recycling. This is a huge dilemma for the UK. We simply don’t have the facilities to handle the scale of recycling that was previously managed by China. Someone, somewhere is going to have to come up with a rather ingenious solution, because, let’s face it, you can’t sweep half a million tonnes of waste under the carpet every year. It has to go somewhere.
According to Greenpeace, there are real concerns that UK councils are going to be forced to stop accepting plastic for recycling, and that instead the waste will end up in landfill, incinerated, or turned into jet fuel. Not quite the revolutionary and green-friendly progress the government expects to see from the packaging industry.
“2018 sees China banning waste imports and the impact of this is yet to be realised,” says Jason Inwood, managing director, Woodway UK. “However, it is clear this will have a huge impact on the UK’s recycling industry.
“500,000 tonnes of plastic a year has been previously shipped to China for recycling and that is no longer an option. The fear is that plastic waste becomes stockpiled and is eventually incinerated, a solution which environmental groups oppose as it generates significant CO2 as well as releasing toxic chemicals and heavy metals.”
Of course, there are other ways to combat the environmental impact of high levels of plastic. For one, a drive towards reducing single-use plastic can contribute to cutting overall plastic waste. However, because other products, including fibre-based alternatives, can no longer be sent to China for recycling, it means that achieving this will be challenging to say the least. “This will be a challenge for the UK recycling industry but may result in increased demand for reusable and recycled packaging,” says Inwood.
Plastic is under the spotlight in more ways than one. Last year the environmental impact of plastic waste on the ocean was brought the fore. “Plastic packaging is the hot topic at the moment with an increased media focus following Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II’ television series which highlighted the amount of plastic waste ending up in our oceans,” says Inwood.
“The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is recommending charging plastic packaging producers more for their waste as well as investigating other levies on plastic.
“If brands weren’t considering change on environmental grounds, this financial impact may well see them shift to more sustainable packaging.”
At Woodway UK, it is already seeing key retail customers looking to remove single-use plastic from the supply chain. According to Inwood, this is likely to increase at an accelerated rate as the debate continues over how to tackle plastic waste.
“This move will potentially see challenges in supply of these sustainable products as demand increases and those manufacturers should be acting now to ensure sufficient products are available,” says Inwood.
Antalis is seeing its customers showing a keen interest minimising the amount of packaging they use, without compromising the protective quality of the packaging.
“Currently, the UK packaging waste regulations provide a financial incentive to the packaging recycling industry to collect and reprocess (or export for reprocessing elsewhere) sufficient material to meet the recycling targets set by the Government,” says John Garner, national business development manager, Antalis Packaging.
“However, although the UK public avidly supports the government’s recycling targets, there remains confusion around what types of materials including plastics can be recycled and how.”
In other words, it is also the responsibility of the retailer or manufacturer of products to explain how their packaging can be recycled. Garner says that the industry needs to do more to promote recycling by cutting the use of packaging and designing packaging with more sustainable materials that replace the reliance on materials that cannot be recycled such as plastic.
Recently, Antalis has been looking at replacing plastics and foam products with packaging that can be naturally grown for example derivatives of mushrooms. This type of solution would be ideally used in the packaging of fresh produce. There has also been a big development around reduction of packaging by using high performance corrugated products which use 30 per cent to 40 per cent less paper but are still 100 per cent recyclable and sustainable.

The intensity of e-commerce growth has not helped in the mission to reduce plastic waste. The very nature of online buying, including the core logistics process of transporting orders to homes, means that there is simply more packaging being produced nowadays. After all, a brick-and-mortar clothing store doesn’t require any packaging for its T-shirts and shorts, whereas an online fashion brand does.
Returns are also far more environmentally harmful online than in store. Especially with a newfound online culture that sees buyers trying on an item in different sizes, and sending three out of four back to the warehouse. “With the growth of online sales, the amount of returns is also increasing,” says Laurel Granville, marketing director of Macfarlane Packaging.
“A consideration for retailers is the use of returnable packaging solutions to reduce environmental impact and ensure items are returned intact for resale.
“To limit the carbon footprint, some businesses are even sourcing returnable packaging that can be used again.”
There are also reinforced board grades that allow single wall to be used in place of double wall, reducing the amount of packaging material used. As well as this, performance low micron stretch wrap can provide load stability using less material than a regular wrap.
“It’s no secret that the number of consumers shopping online has increased at an exponential rate,” says Rob Carle, head of sales, e-commerce at DS Smith, UK Packaging.
“E-commerce is the fastest growing retail market in Europe and North America, and it’s predicted that by 2021 the UK could be sending 3.9 billion parcels a year. This rate and scale of growth presents a number of challenges to the market but also many opportunities.”
Excess or unnecessary packaging is still a huge problem in e-commerce. “In recent years, a growing number of online e-commerce firms have repeatedly come under fire from customers for using huge packages to deliver small items, such as a lipstick sent in a box the size of a computer,” says John Garner of Antalis Packaging. “As consumers increasingly favour companies who care about the environment and opt for sustainable packaging, it is putting the onus on businesses to use less material and better quality packaging products.”
Macfarlane’s Laurel Granville, says an important consideration is ensuring the packaging used is “fit for purpose”. “We help our customers to use packaging that is the right size for the product it is protecting and limit excess internal protection,” she says.
“Using ‘fit for purpose’ packaging not only reduces packaging material waste, it also reduces the footprint of the package which has a big impact on carbon emissions in the supply chain, transport costs and returns resulting from damages.”

Consumer consciousness
Back in 2016, Woodway UK did an online consumer packaging survey which found that 72.3 per cent of respondents thought recyclability of packaging was important – the second highest concern after security. This was followed by the amount of packaging used at 72 per cent, and whether the packaging was environmentally friendly at 69 per cent.
A year later, and the 2017 results show that these concerns have all increased significantly. 77.6 per cent of those surveyed identified recyclability as important, 78.3 per cent described quantity of packaging as important, and 73.8 per cent found whether the packaging was environmentally friendly important.
“Over-packaging can still be an issue especially over the November – December peak period when demand is high, leading to an increase in temporary workers who often haven’t had sufficient training in efficient packing methods,” says Jason Inwood, managing director, Woodway UK. “Woodway UK run a packaging training course, PackAcademy, which we have seen an increased uptake of in 2017.
“Customers see the benefit of having key individuals trained ahead of peak, which in turn helps reduce the number of complaints of over-packaging as well as damages created by under-packaging.”
Antalis’ John Garner agrees that consumers increasingly care about a company’s green credentials.
“Which means we are going into businesses looking for ways to improve sustainability whether that’s by reducing their carbon footprint via warehouse optimisation, or reducing the material used and using greener packaging solutions,” he says. “For example, we offer recyclable palletised containers that are not only economical in terms of space, but can be stacked high so more can fit onto a pallet. They’re also supplied collapsed flat in a single unit; the empty pallet box folds up to save space and transport costs/emissions.”

How to achieve cost effective packaging

l Look at the entire supply chain
“There are opportunities to reduce carbon footprint and reduce the total cost of packaging,” says Laurel Granville, marketing director of Macfarlane Packaging. “In our experience, the cost of packaging material is usually less than 10 per cent of the total packaging costs and many opportunities exist to reduce cost if you consider the total packing operation, including storage, transport and productivity in the packing operation.”
l Streamline the packaging process
This can be done by reducing packaging materials, rethinking the box design and improving warehouse capacity. “By simply choosing the correct size and strength boxes reduces the amount of protective cushioning or void fill that would be required to protect goods in transit, which helps to keep cost down,” says John Garner, national business development manager at Antalis Packaging. “For example, we have found that something as simple as swapping a standard box to a ‘crash lock’ bottom alternative that is quicker and easier to assemble, can have a ripple effect; helping to speed up the packing times from 60 to 120 items an hour and resulting in an overall cost saving of 5 per cent per item.”
l Thoughtfully designed packaging.
“[This] can provide a competitive advantage, something that is important with the tight margins and mass discounting experienced throughout peak retail periods,” says Rob Carle, DS Smith. “Reviewing packaging design and making sure it performs well throughout the supply chain is essential when it comes to operating cost effectively. “Small changes to a pack design can reverberate throughout the supply chain. These incremental improvements can equate to substantial cost savings, greater efficiencies, improved environmental performance and a key competitive advantage.”


l DS Smith has created Made2fit, a new piece of technology that enables the business to create right-size packaging and reduce void space. “Tackling void space is crucial, in terms of fully use each square metre during transport and reducing the raw materials required,” says Rob Carle, DS Smith. “It also lowers costs for e-retailers by reducing both operational and shipping costs, and significantly reduces product movement when in transit, helping to reduce damage. This technology is a key way in which we are gearing up for growth in the sector.”
l Antalis has introduced a number of solutions for businesses looking to minimise waste by cutting down on excessive wraps and void fill. This includes the New Air I.B Extreme H160, an on-demand air cushioning solution – is an alternative to foam fill.
l Antalis has also designed the I-Pack corrugated automated packing system, a machine that measures the height of the contents in each box and then reduce its size to match by folding down the box flaps. After UK discount bookseller The Book People installed the system, they were able to halve the amount of packaging they used, which also helped to free up warehouse space.

This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, February 2018

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