Thinking outside the box

Posted on 7 Apr 2009 by The Manufacturer

More sustainable product packaging — using both biodegradable materials and less aggregate packaging — need not compromise packaging quality and can create cost savings. Jean-Louis Evans, managing director at TÜV Product Service, a global product testing and certification company, looks at the industry trend towards sustainable packaging, and asks whether manufacturers can afford to ignore the movement

Since the introduction of the European Packaging Directive in 1994, manufacturers in the European Union have been obliged to achieve certain targets in the proportion of packaging waste they recover and recycle. The directive aims to prevent the use of excessive packaging and has been successful in promoting the collection of used packaging for recycling. Some companies have asked, however, does the directive go far enough to promote environmentally friendly alternatives to manufacturers?

Packaging accounts for about five million tonnes of household waste a year, and a similar amount of industrial waste, according to the UK Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) . Recently the packaging industry has moved towards producing more environmentally-friendly alternatives, with an emphasis on packaging made from sustainable materials that decompose over time and is made from sustainable resources.

As a society, we are moving towards a more sustainable existence and it is clear that manufacturers need to take their environmental responsibility more seriously if they want to remain competitive within the marketplace.

Packaging puzzle
The ultimate purpose of packaging is to protect the product inside physically and ensure that it is received by the end user in a satisfactory condition. This means that throughout the product’s life, from manufacture and shipping to display and end consumption, packaging has multiple jobs to do. There are an overwhelming range of materials to choose from, including a variety of bio-plastics, recycled materials and recyclable packaging. However, manufacturers must be careful in the quest for sustainability, to ensure that they do not sacrifice packaging performance, which could damage the product, or add excessive cost.

Packaging can be made to protect the product from physical extremities, such as heat, cold, rain, sunlight, and also damage that could be caused by air pressure during transit. But are environmentallyfriendly alternative materials, such as moulded pulp, starch foam packs, cornstarch packing peanuts and inflatable air pillows, able to withstand such forces as well as traditional materials?

In general, tests show that environmentally-friendly alternatives are just as robust as traditional materials, although this varies greatly depending on the product requirements. Eco-friendly materials are not always viable for some manufacturers, but in these cases manufacturers should focus on where else they can make a difference in reducing the carbon footprint of the packaging process, ensuring that where possible they follow the mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle.

Several proactive manufacturers in the UK are already having their packaging independently tested to compare their materials against more eco-friendly ones. TÜV Product Service completes tests such as shock and vibration testing of packaging, to ensure that it protects the product adequately inside in a range of shipping methods. For example, a recent test involved substituting polystyrene chips for filled airbags when shipping a DVD recorder, and tests confirmed there was no detriment to the condition in which the item arrived.

Corporate social responsibility
Durability and strength are important demands of a product’s packaging, but cost is an equally big factor for manufacturers. As a guide, packaging should only represent around 10% of the total cost of the product and, if on display, it also needs to be of a high enough quality to sell the product. For example, in the perfume industry it’s essential that packaging retains a luxury appearance to help sell the product.

Many manufacturers are interested in sustainable packaging, but are deterred by the uncertainty about what sustainability means and the cost implications of such packaging. With these pressures, companies may conclude that using eco-friendly alternatives will be more expensive and will make the end product look less attractive, but this is not necessarily right. By being prepared to innovate and test packaging thoroughly to ensure it still does its job, the application of a more ‘green’ approach to packaging can protect the product to the same degree as traditional materials. It can also produce an adequate return on investment to justify the time and money required to alter existing production and packing processes.

Rather than seeing environmentally-friendly packaging as a nuisance, manufacturers need to take advantage of the opportunity to take the lead in their industry and stay ahead of the competition. More companies are becoming increasingly concerned with and involved in corporate social responsibility, and manufacturers need to think further than simply recycling when considering sustainable packaging.

By investing in programmes that reduce the amount of packaging used, manufacturers will also be able to achieve sustainable cost reduction. Reducing production costs via the minimisation of packaging waste could mitigate against competitive pressures, such as the need to keep retail prices in check, and increase profit margins.

Manufacturers must obviously be cautious when trying new materials for the first time, by ensuring that they have fully tested the durability of new materials before using them. Damage to the internal product during transit, for example with furniture and white goods, can be very costly and therefore requires the shipping company to be 100% confident of the end product’s quality on delivery.

Displaying the company’s concerns for the environment can act as a vital marketing tool to sell its product. A good example of this was during the Easter period this year when confectionery company Cadbury’s launched a line of reduced packaged Easter eggs, which were simply foil wrapped. This represented a reduction of over 75% of plastic and 65% less cardboard than was previously used in standard eggs, and rather than repel customers helped to maintain Cadbury’s position as one of the market-leaders in chocolate Easter eggs.

The consumer is king
Product packagers have the difficult job of trying to keep costs down and increase product sales while catering to consumer demand. Consumers increasingly demand that companies adopt more environmentally-friendly packaging, but they also want low cost items, attractive packaging and for their items to arrive in a good condition.

So manufacturers have to work twice as hard to meet these demands, while also educating consumers on their environmental responsibilities in the product’s lifecycle. Consumers need to be informed what can and can’t be recycled, and to be aware of those companies that are making an effort to reduce their impact on the environment.

The consumer consensus is powerful. Following a consumer backlash over McDonald’s use of Styrofoam cups in the early 1990s, McDonald’s was forced to reduce its usage of the material, which ultimately cost the company more money in the long run, along with unspecified damage to its brand.

WRAP it up
Many fast moving consumer goods companies have already made efforts to reduce packaging waste and have schemes to improve the sustainability of the packaging they use. For example, PepsiCo is working towards all the packaging for its Quaker and Walkers brands being renewable, recyclable or biodegradable within 10 years. For other companies there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Manufacturers need to extend their responsibility through the product’s lifecycle, especially the take-back, recovery and final disposal of the product. A socially and environmentally responsible approach to packaging is a good way for companies to demonstrate to consumers that corporate social responsibility is important to them. However, firms cannot simply pay lip-service to greener packaging — it must be ingrained within the corporate philosophy. In the absence of a strong surveillance regime by UK authorities to ensure compliance to the legislation (European Packaging Directive), it is up to big companies to take the lead and experiment with different types of sustainable and environmentally-friendly materials. Where this is not possible for packaging difficult goods, a take-back scheme should be implemented.

Supermarkets are a useful ally in the promotion of green packaging. Last year 13 British retailers joined the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to tackle packaging and food waste under an agreement known as the Courtauld Commitment. They agreed to halt the increase in packaging waste in 2008, deliver reductions by 2010 and identify ways to tackle the problem of food waste.

Moving to more sustainable packaging is both a financial and an environmental decision. Packaging legislation is becoming more restrictive, while concurrently developments in materials, coupled with rising manufacturing volumes and efficiencies, are driving down prices and increasing the availability of biodegradable and compostable products every day.

For packaging, thinking outside the box is not a step into the unknown for the manufacturing industry any more but a business necessity that needs to be addressed.

Free carbon footprinting and environmental management workshops are available from the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), Giraffe Innovation and Biffa.

Companies have the opportunity to attend six workshops.

Four workshops: carbon footprint your product and packaging to improve environmental performance and reduce costs.

Two workshops: does your company have an environmental management standard?

The workshops will also outline the opportunity to sign up for ongoing subsidised advice through the MAS Green Business Club.

These workshops are free of charge and places are available on a first come first served basis so please book early. You are welcome to register to one or both of the workshops.

Please go to the links below to carbon footprint your product & packaging or find out about the environmental management standard.

For further details and registration information or contact
[email protected]