What are you packing?

Posted on 7 Oct 2010 by The Manufacturer

For years manufacturers have been fretting over the size of their packages. Simply taking weight out does not necessarily constitute a lower environmental impact, though. Mark Young seeks out alternatives.

Manufacturing companies, regardless of sector, are under both financial and environmental pressure to reduce their packaging. For some products, though, to do so can mean compromising quality to the end user – unacceptable when quality is often a market differentiator.

Swapping one material for a lighter one could even be a false economy. Coffee maker Kenco crowed about its new plastic Eco Refill, which it claims are 97% lighter than glass and require 81% less energy than the old glass and plastic jars. There is also the fact that the packs are refillable. However, they require specialist facilities to recycle them, and users are encouraged to send packs to a company called Terracycle who’ll make some rather odd looking bags, pencil cases and umbrellas with them. If coffee-cup chic is the next big thing on the catwalk, the project will be raging success. If it isn’t, we’ll have to do a more thorough audit on the pros and cons.

Finally, some firms may have gone as far as they can go. At the beginning of 2008, PepsiCo UK, the owner of Walker’s crisps, vowed to reduce the weight of the nation’s favourite savoury snack packets by 10%.

In its first year, though, it achieved only 2%. This was by removing two and a half millimetres from the end seals of the packets. In the end of year report it stated that although this initiative had prevented the emission of 1,400 tonnes of CO2 and saved it £1m, its current plans did not put it on track to meet its target. Indeed, as of now, no further action has been taken, and no further reductions have been made to date. The company would not be drawn on why it has achieved only 20% of its target, although it was keen to point to its myriad of other environmental initiatives, including shrinking the cardboard boxes it uses which saved 4,500 tonnes of annual corrugate and reusing the water it makes crisp with.

So now the focus has shifted away from just weight and toward a much more holistic approach. Testament to this is Phase 2 of WRAP’s voluntary Courtauld Commitment. Thirty-eight of the UK’s leading brands and retailers have signalled their kinship with the commitment and its targets – including reducing the carbon impact of packaging by 10% by 2012 – as of the beginning of September, including PepsiCo, as well as Britvic, AG Barr, Nestlé UK, Premier Foods and Unilever UK. “Courtauld Commitment 1 was about less packaging,” explains WRAP’s Peter Skelton. “Courtauld Commitment 2 is about smarter packaging.” So, how then? To start with, companies can reduce the impact of their transportation packaging by swapping traditional wooden pallets for reusable ones – such as those supplied by wire fastener manufacturer Gripple’s sister company, Loadhog. The Pally is a stackable plastic pallet system – completely made out of recycle materials – which can take up to 500kg of weight and can be turned from a stationary stack into a moveable one by lowering wheels with a foot pedal. The company also makes plastic lids with retractable, hooked straps which can be used with the plastic pallets or just on its own with standard UK and European-sized traditional wooden ones.

This completely takes away the need for any shrink wrap or binding, making it completely waste free, and significantly lowering the chance of shrinkage. As there is no need for roll cages, you can fit 64 pallets in a standard truck using Loadhog’s product instead of the 40 – 45 you’d get with standard pallet, which lowers road miles, too.

And manufacturers who use corrugated boxes can become more efficient by taking control of their own packaging needs instead of outsourcing.

Here, Swedish-founded company Packsize says it can help. They’ll install a machine in a factory for free which allows companies to create right-sized boxes as they are needed.

Painting a different picture
Mostly, though, it’s about taking inspiration from others. Crown Paints, for example, has been hard at work over the last few years and have come up with a number of ideas on how they can improve. Paint traditionally only comes in two types of container: metal and plastic. Someone at Crown Paints, who may or may not be fond of the odd tipple or two, has suggested the company looks into bag-in-a-box style packaging, a suggestion the company is duly considering, but there are no plans as of yet for this third option to trouble the status quo.

Paint is one of those things where it is probably best to adopt a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach.

It’s heavy, for a start, and even the most talented of cleaners will shudder at the thought of it spilt. And this means packaging must be nothing less than robust.

Crown Paints has nonetheless managed to reduce the weight of its metal containers. By working with UK company, Impress Packaging, it has taken 50% of the tin plate out of its two litre pack and 30% out of its five litre one without affecting the integrity of the container. But this is not where most of its attention has been directed. The company has made a closed loop for the recycling of both plastic and metal containers, and has now begun operating a ‘can back’ return scheme. Used largely in the trade arena, purchasers can bring back empty cans that, if they are metal, go back through to smelting and if they are plastic be re-granulated to make new packages as well as things like roller trays. AG Barr operates a long established scheme that is similar to this with its glass Irn Bru bottles in Scotland. Consumers pay a 30 pence excess for the product, which they get back when they bring the bottle back to the outlet.

AG Barr collects the empties when it delivers the fresh and, somewhat surprisingly, it says it gets 70% of the bottles it sells north of the border back to its factory.

Crown Paints is also looking into the idea of a selfdispensing system in shops, a la Kenco.

When asked whether plastic or metal is better, Crown Paints Sustainability & HSE manager, Mark Lloyd, would not be drawn. After everything, of course, consumer sovereignty must be obeyed. “We don’t want to be bogged down with just one type container,” says Lloyd. “It has to be what’s best for the customer.” And this adds to the argument at the start of this article. Manufacturers are not prepared to negotiate on quality for the sake of carbon reduction; it would probably be safe to bet that they won’t take a risk on turning off customers either. Public perceptions, therefore, need to be changed.

Simon says…

It’s not just the public that needs a new mindset, though. Some say making real progress in packaging reduction is going to require an industrychanging shift in thinking. One advocate of this school of thought is Simon Miller, consultancy director at Best Foot Forward, an independent sustainability consultancy which helps firms lower their environmental impact across a wide range of areas. The organisation has worked with some of Britain’s biggest and most recognisable brands, and won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2005 in the Sustainable Development category. Miller says, in many instances, the greatest opportunity lies with changing the decision making, rather than finding technological or material solutions.

“What we find with a number of our clients is the responsibility for packaging design doesn’t just lie with the technical guys – the brand managers hold the biggest sway in what actually happens,” he explains. “The R&D team might have the answers for optimising a design, getting it down to a very lean weight which is still structurally sound and does everything it is required to do. But instead of that design being adopted, the marketing departments dictate a brief with the primary concern for brand distinction and shelf presence.

This aim, in many cases, is at the cost of higher material volumes.” To succeed in everything that a company needs to do – recognising the needs for shelf presence; minimal breakage rates; appropriate tooling for production; reducing packaging impacts – a collective approach is required.

“Once people begin talking things really start to take off. We work with branding teams so they understand the implications of their decisions on the manufacturing process and associated carbon footprint. Of course, the big opportunity lies with the marketing team embracing resource efficient design as a major sales point – which we are seeing now more and more – to form a virtuous circle to move towards optimal low impact design.” Theoretically, this means things like the ‘Pamela Anderson shaped’ Virgin cola bottle or distinctive Toilet Duck packaging could be consigned to the history books. Adds Miller: “It’s an interesting idea that in a few years, with much higher resource costs, we might see almost identical, optimal pack designs from different manufacturers lining the shelves, with just the colours and labels used to distinguish brands.” Best we don’t tell Matey, yet; they’ll think we’re having a bubble bath.