Packaging is very much in the spotlight, but some of the solutions being advocated make little environmental sense. Business should use this crisis to make meaningful changes with real long-term benefits for health and the environment, argues Debbie Hitchen.
Earlier this year, McDonalds and Iceland were two of the first companies to make bold statements about their commitments to address the environmental impacts of plastic packaging and the waste that it creates.
Retailers, the hospitality sector and their supply chains continue to come under scrutiny with significant media and public attention focused on the amount of single-use plastic packaging, drinking straws and other plastic items in circulation across the UK.
Like paper cups before it, plastic has been the focus of a host of negative coverage over the last year, culminating in the Blue Planet II series finale in December and the launch of the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan in January.
Plastic: A success story and a disaster
Plastic is both a success story and a disaster, at the same time.
The rise of single-use plastics has been a result of its super-flexibility and suitability for a wide range of packaging applications. Combined with our changing consumption patterns as a nation, plastic innovation has resulted in lower cost, lightweight packaging with transport impact benefits and properties which not only protect, but in the case of some food items, enhance product shelf life.
Wrong actions for true sustainability?
There is no denying that the failure to address the littering caused by irresponsible consumer behaviour and the challenges faced with recycling some polymer types and packaging configurations has certainly had wide reaching impacts on our land and marine environments globally. And with consumer concern about harmful chemicals leaching from plastics also on the rise, it's not surprising that government, producers and retailers have felt obliged to respond.
Unfortunately, some of the actions being proposed in the heat of the moment may not ultimately deliver the environmental and health benefits we all seek. Setting ambitious goals to remove all plastic packaging and replace it with a recyclable or more sustainable alternative may seem laudable, but also brings with it many new questions and challenges.
This sort of business decision requires strategic and systems changes to understand the most appropriate ways to respond to the current pressures without increasing carbon emissions, chemical pollution or product wastage.
Driving such significant changes within any business model will require complex partnerships between different internal and external stakeholders and needs to be underpinned by detailed business and environmental analytics and supported by a long-term plan.
Sustainable plastic packaging - the path to real solutions
Any company thinking about starting out on this journey should initially consider a packaging hot-spot analysis, which will have to include supplier engagement.
The UK’s packaging supply chain is typically quite innovative and is used to responding to environmental legislation, as well as requirements from leading manufacturers and retailers to increase recyclability of materials or to replace substances of concern.
An initial supplier discussion, probably focused on those strategic or priority suppliers that the business has long-term relationships with, will prove the most fruitful place to start to understand the ‘problem plastics’ and their alternatives.
To understand the full picture, it will also be beneficial to engage the waste management and recycling/reprocessing sector to map the challenges, limitations and opportunities to provide sustainable end of life solutions for various packaging material types, including those plastics used in the food industry and clothing and textiles.
Solutions across the sustainable supply chain
Our work on this area has certainly ramped up over the past year where we have been working on a range of solutions for our clients, including:
- Material substitution choices
- Environmental profit and loss accounting
- Facilitating multi-stakeholder R&D for packaging change and managing trials
- Carrying out LCA and Circular Economy impact assessment for new vs current packaging formats - for example, looking at product damage arising from packaging changes and, within the grocery sector, impacts on food waste and impacts of food contact standard requirements
- Monitoring and reporting progress against baseline data
- Supporting with media campaigns to raise awareness of change impacts
We have been tracking the drivers for change for some time and we’ve been working in partnership with our clients as they start to address the challenges they face. As part of our services we have helped manufacturers and retailers to understand the costs and operational impacts of a deposit return scheme on their businesses and customers, we’ve run trials to increase hard to recycle packaging items, we’ve implemented pilots of new packaging formats and assessed their impacts on the environment, customers and economic business models, and we’ve supported with government lobbying and media strategy planning.
With plastics in the spotlight, the potential for innovation and positive change is high. We are keen to support companies in rising to the challenge with entrepreneurial and commercially viable long-term solutions that also create real environmental and health benefits for society as a whole.
You can read more about the plastic sustainability challenge.
To contact Anthesis about anything raised in this article or for further support with your business solutions, please get in touch with Debbie Hitchen via our fill out form below. In the meantime, why not download our free PDF guide on tackling the plastics problem.
Further reading plastic recycling and sustainability: