Glass or plastic? Maybe cardboard or corrugated paper? Whichever packaging material you choose, its environmental impact should now play a key role in your decision.
Choosing the right material for a particular product has always been complicated. Cost has long been the top consideration for brands, along with weight, design accessibility, and deliverability.
Today, environmental priorities are at the top of the list. This is thanks to upcoming government regulations such as the Plastic Packaging Tax, which will be introduced in April, and Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging, coming in 2024.
“It used to be that sustainable packaging was a ‘nice to have’, which didn’t really affect your bottom line,” says Nicole Costantini, senior energy and environment consultant at Ricardo. “The new legislation has been completely redesigned to make it a priority, with increasing costs [for those who don’t comply]. I don’t think everyone is fully prepared for this.
When it comes to the environmental impact of packaging materials, it’s impossible to tick all the boxes, says Costantini. Instead, brands should define their individual goals. These can be emissions-based or focused on circularity and recyclability. Companies then need to set clear goals, which they then measure with hard data and life cycle assessments (LCAs) to ensure they are meaningful.
Choosing between glass and plastic may seem like a no-brainer. Glass is 100% recyclable and one of the most frequently recycled materials in the UK, while plastic is made from petroleum and is the poster child for planetary disasters. But when it comes to measurable environmental impact, things get a little complicated.
“The challenge between tackling what is actually eco-friendly and consumer perception is something we encounter often,” says Costantini.
Glass can have a high carbon footprint. There are emissions during production and recycling and the weight it adds to the packaging, which increases transportation emissions. “Use recyclable plastic [can] in some cases, be more environmentally friendly when speaking from an emissions perspective,” she notes.
Dr. Manoj Dora is an operations and supply chain management expert at Brunel University Business School. He agrees that there is no general rule that glass is better than plastic. However, single-use plastic is the most carbon-intensive material of all, he notes, especially plastic film, which is not cost-effective to recycle.
But there is a problem. At this point, there is no viable alternative for perishable food packaging. It’s possible to replace plastic in short, local supply chains, says Dora, or even eliminate it altogether. But in complex global systems, where fruits and vegetables travel long distances, plastic film packaging is necessary for hygiene and to ensure product longevity.
Dora and her team mapped the supply chain of different food products from farm to fork, finding that items were handled 32 times on average. “Every time we touch food there is a risk of contamination, wastage, spillage, and we lose a lot of food in the process,” he says.
Also, studies have shown that cucumber wrapped in film lasts 10-12 days, but without film it goes away very quickly. Research from Zero Waste Scotland has shown that food waste can be a bigger cause of carbon emissions than plastic.
Costantini believes the carbon footprint of replacing more sustainable consumer products should not be ignored. “We need packaging that protects the products otherwise it does not fulfill its function. The carbon that is embedded in the product usually far exceeds the carbon that is embedded in the packaging,” she says.
Recycling, return, reprocessing
Cardboard is a popular material as it is generally cheaper, made with a high percentage of recycled material and widely recycled by UK households. However, barrier layers and laminates can be a little more complicated in today’s reprocessing facilities.
Recycling infrastructure across the UK is in dire need of reform and standardization, which is set to be at the center of Extended Producer Responsibility legislation for packaging in 2024.
“The government is considering encouraging a concept called ‘eco-modulation’, where producers will pay less for packaging that can be recycled and more for packaging that cannot,” Costantini says.
The European Commission is developing similar initiatives, which will encourage brands – especially global companies that work across multiple territories – to use higher quality materials with a circular rather than a linear system in mind.
“If you use more durable, high-quality plastic packaging, it’s much more desirable for reprocessors and much more likely to be recycled into something similar to what it was originally designed for” , says Constantini. “It’s something brands need to start thinking about as soon as possible.”
The deposit system, which will launch in Scotland in 2023 and in England and Wales at the end of 2024, will also improve recyclability by encouraging consumers to return their glass or plastic bottles and cans for credit or refund within local collection points. This will in turn improve the quality of the waste collected.
Complications of composting
Using compostable materials sends a nice message to consumers, Constantini says, but she advises brand owners to be careful. “If a packaging is compostable at home but looks like plastic and the consumer puts that packaging in the recycling, it will contaminate all other plastic packaging in that waste stream,” she warns.
Constantini believes such material has its place, but it needs to be well communicated to consumers on the packaging. This works well for brands known for their environmental credentials, such as Finisterre, an outdoor clothing brand that uses bio-based packaging that consumers can dissolve using hot water.
“It’s important for brands like this to lead the way and push the boundaries when it comes to bio-based materials,” she says.
Dora believes the UK government should encourage more investment and research into bio-based materials, pointing to the use of banana leaves and bamboo in countries like India.
“It’s all about cost. Plastic is the cheapest solution so far, but now we have to look for materials that are cost-effective, but bio-based and recyclable, so we rely less on plastic. We need to start thinking circular.