Packaging: How you can tackle the throwaway culture and move to sustainable alternatives

  • 15 Mar 2022

Waste packaging is doing serious damage to the environment and wildlife, and much of it is due to the lack of recycling and reuse of packaging. Penelope Rance looks at how small firms can review their approach to packaging, and how they can make a positive difference.

In 2017, the UK generated 9.3 million tonnes of packaging waste. According to the 2021 Plastics Market situation report, packaging accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the country’s plastic waste, with flexible plastics making up more than 20 per cent of consumer packaging – only 6 per cent of which gets recycled. 

 

The impact is catastrophic. The WWF reports that plastic ingestion and entanglement kills at least 100,000 marine animals and one million birds each year. Waste in landfill sites can take centuries to degrade, releasing methane, leaking toxins and poisoning wildlife. Incineration releases greenhouse gases.

In Scotland, some single-use plastic items will be banned from June 2022, affecting plastic cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers, balloon sticks, and food and drink containers made of expanded polystyrene, including covers and lids. The rest of the UK will doubtless follow. 

In the meantime, from April, HMRC’s Plastic Packaging Tax will apply to all UK manufacturers and importers of packaging that is predominantly plastic by weight. Packaging that contains 30 per cent or more recycled plastic will be exempt, creating an incentive to recycle and reuse. From 2023, reforms to the UK Packaging Waste regulations mean businesses that put packaged products onto the UK market must cover the costs of collecting and recycling packaging. 

But making businesses responsible for the costs of packaging waste management won’t automatically mean more gets recycled. “The infrastructure isn’t there in terms of processing packaging to the extent we need,” says Sat Pillai, FSB Environment Policy Chair.

“A lot of things can be recyclable, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting recycled.” Small firms are less likely to have contracts with waste management companies, relying on council services. 

 

Nonetheless, the problem needs to be addressed, and there are myriad ways in which SMEs can help. 

Difficult questions

The first question: do you need packaging at all? If it’s impossible to abandon, the next steps should be reducing, reusing and recycling, and cutting non-recyclable items.

“Simplify packaging to as few material types as possible,” advises Martin Baxter, IEMA Director of Policy and External Affairs. “The extent to which you can recover materials also matters, and the quality at which you can recover them, because that enhances the ability to reuse or repurpose.”

Weight also has a direct impact. “Light-weight packaging has a huge benefit in terms of reducing energy emissions during transport from the manufacturer, and in the shipping of products using that packaging,” adds Mr Baxter.

The ideal is a packaging model that requires no new materials. “We can become more resource-efficient though a circular economy, where we leave a minimal footprint on the Earth and eliminate the concept of waste,” says Mr Pillai. “If you have a container that’s made of plastic, rather than put it into the waste management system, reuse it for some other purpose. Being resource-efficient is also better for your bottom line.”

The ‘nine Rs’ provide a framework for packaging: rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, re-gift, repair, rent, rot, recycle. “Ideally, you want to refuse a product in the first instance, then reuse or repurpose it, as this uses less energy. Recycling should be the last of the nine Rs,” says Mr Pillai.

 

Not every solution works for every product: chemical receptacles must meet safety standards; food and medicines have to be hygienically stored; perishables need preserving and protecting. When looking at alternatives, interrogate their suitability, pros and cons, including life span, recyclability and degradability, and functionality. “Start with the easiest, low-hanging opportunities and learn as you go,” says John Mooney, director of sustainability consultancy The GBN. 

There are easy steps. Magazines can be sent out in paper envelopes, while buy-by-weight stores encourage customers to bring their own containers. Returnable, reusable containers have the advantage of a single outlay for multiple uses. However, a durable crate takes around 20 trips to pay for itself, and is less practical for shipping fragile goods long distance.

Alternative thinking 

Plastic’s applications as a lightweight air and water-tight barrier make it hard to completely replace. Many degradable plastics are made from fossil fuels and their oxi-degradable coatings are pollutants, so the best choice is recyclable, reusable flexible plastic. Research into non-toxic plant-based wrapping that degrades in less than a year is starting to offer a viable alternative, and edible options are a possibility. 
Compostable packaging isn’t necessarily good if clients cannot dispose of it.

“Biodegradable packaging does not usually get composted properly, and is more likely to result in partially decomposed microplastics than benign organic compounds,” says Mr Mooney. 

Glass is reusable and recyclable, but should be limited to long-lasting products that don’t need to be shipped far. “In many circumstances, glass is a great packaging product, but it is heavy and requires a lot of energy to recycle,” he adds. “If the glass is reused, the balance in the equation may be different.” Return schemes can help; in Scotland the Government is working with retailers to enable people to return their bottles and cans for recycling from November 2022. 

 

Paper and card packaging is a favourite of the environmentally conscious, but its production can create more pollution than plastic. Sourcing unbleached, FSC accredited wood pulp; opting for unprinted card; avoiding over-engineering; and reusing boxes all reduce its impact. “A great starting point is the outer packaging: can you review the specification of your cartons? Three-layer corrugated cardboard boxes may have scope to be optimised – often the inner layer is over specified,” says Mr Mooney. Companies such as Reuseabox are promoting cardboard reuse on an industrial scale, buying and selling quality second-hand boxes and keeping the packaging in the economy for longer.

Wider action 

The biggest impact for some SMEs will come from picking supply chain partners that have also looked into this. Collaboration is key, says Mr Baxter, who advises small firms to come up with innovative solutions for suppliers, rather than just demanding changes.

“Consider asking suppliers to use standard-sized packaging to make it easier to reuse, or to take back used packaging,” adds Mr Mooney. “Source suppliers that offer products with less packaging.” 

The shift to reusable, recyclable packaging may increase your outlay, but customers who are invested in greener solutions will be willing to pay more if you advertise your intentions. “PR cannot reduce the costs, but if you make a virtue of what you are doing you will attract more business from consumers with a conscience,” he adds.

Communication doesn’t need to be complicated, adds Mr Pillai. “From a consumer point of view, it’s not about the carbon stats, it’s more about doing the right thing,” he says. “It’s just sensible to eliminate wasted resources.” 

Evolve Flowers 

Self-proclaimed as “a bit of an old hippy”, Evolve Flowers founder Helen Chambers is on a mission to make the flower industry more sustainable. 

“A big issue for florists is that a lot of flowers come packed in cellophane sleeves – they’re drowning in cellophane,” she says. “In the UK it has to be industrially recycled, and for small businesses that’s not practical.” Evolve therefore supplies both wholesale and retail flowers without plastic.

Some 95 per cent of Evolve’s flowers and foliage come from farms within a 40-mile radius of its studio in Pinchbeck, Lincolnshire. This means less packaging, with many blooms arriving naked in buckets or on pallets. 

The retail business delivers stock in recyclable, hand-stamped cardboard boxes. “We’re also delivering to florists on returnable trays or trolleys,” she says. “Taking the packaging out of the chain in the beginning is the best solution.” Bouquets are dispatched in glass vases or recycled craft paper. 

 

Other materials include biodegradable labels; paper tape, string and raffia; biodegradable bags; flower food in compostable sachets; and cotton wrap for flower stems. “We’ve got wooden tags on our vases that say, ‘reuse, return, recycle’,” she adds. “We also use biodegradable glitter, made of eucalyptus pulp.” 

Evolve’s biggest challenge is logistics, as reducing packaging limits shipping options. “Traditional couriers aren’t fit for purpose for perishable products,” she says. “I’m trying to get funding for our own logistics, or find partners able to deliver unboxed flowers.”

A qualified florist tutor, she is also a sustainability educator: “We’re putting out guides via our website. We’re advising suppliers on what florists want, and what’s not necessary.”

Sustainable packaging resources 

The Circular Economy Club offers resources for the design and implementation of circular local initiatives: circulareconomyclub.com 

The GBN provides consultancy services for environmental compliance: thegbn.co.uk 

Wrap is a not-for-profit providing advice on sustainable packaging: wrap.org.uk
clearonplastics.com 

Supply Chain Sustainability School offers training and resources for calculating and reducing supply chain impacts: supplychainschool.co.uk 

Support for businesses looking to be more sustainable:

FSB Sustainability Hub: fsb.org.uk/campaign/small-business-sustainability-hub 

Zero Carbon Business Portal: zerocarbonbusiness.uk 

SME Climate Hub: businessclimatehub.org/tools

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