Roger Wright, director of waste strategy and packaging at waste management company Biffa, walks you through which packaging formats and materials make a difference – and which ones to consider.
The packaging is perfectly primed to grab a consumer’s attention. Studies on the psychology behind purchasing decisions reveal that aesthetics and feel are key motivating factors.
Consumers may (consciously or unconsciously) look for a color and index associated with a brand or, increasingly, for more sustainable materials (like choosing paper over plastic for their favorite in-store products).
To help meet the needs of your end user and all retailers selling your product in an increasingly environmentally conscious world, so it’s worth considering your choice of packaging carefully along with a host of other key features that follow.
Ideally, the materials used enter the circular economy where they can be continuously reused, refurbished, regenerated or recycled for as long as possible in a closed loop.
Even the most circular materials have a limited lifespan and will eventually no longer be optimal.
Even the most circular materials have a limited lifespan and will eventually no longer be optimal. It should also be noted that reusable packaging is not always recyclable. It is therefore often preferable to choose recyclable materials for these as well.
The biggest challenge is single use, which has a short and unique lifespan. Single use (or container disposable) characterizes many types of packaging, many materials, and which can lead to increased waste and therefore carbon emissions, as virgin materials are needed to replace used goods.
Changes are needed at all stages of the circular economy, but conscious decisions about the choice of packaging materials can be made today and are key to becoming a more sustainable business. Using sustainable packaging materials will also prevent consumers from wishcycling.
That’s why Biffa helps companies understand the sustainable packaging options available. It can feel overwhelming and confusing, especially when certain materials are mistakenly perceived to be more planet-friendly.
Understanding what types of packaging can (and cannot) fit into the circular economy and in what context means you can make informed, sustainable changes – or at least feel reassured that you are on the right track. .
To help you make those tough choices, I’m sharing seven steps to sustainable packaging heaven, to make the process easier for you.
- Packaging Origin Story
Consider if packaging is necessary in the first place. Challenge your supplier and refuse to accept additional packaging if you do not consider it necessary. Make sure any additional packaging is from sustainable sources.
- The product or service
Check the sustainability credentials of the packaged product or service to avoid getting caught for overstating green claims.
- The supply chain
Find out who physically made your package, if their employees are treated fairly, and how far the package has traveled. Ask yourself if the finished product or service is under- or over-packaged for the channel in which it is sold.
- retail therapy
How does the packaging make you feel? Does it bring you joy? Would your client want to keep it, even after they’ve reached their goal? Try to understand the consumer psychological decisions behind your product choice.
How effective is the packaging at doing what it was designed to do, and will it meet the requirements for inclusivity?
- The circular economy
Does the packaging meet the requirements of the circular economy and can this packaging – by its very existence – help the end user to think or act more sustainably in other ways?
- End of life
Bring it back to basics – is the packaging widely recyclable (by which we mean widely collected, sorted AND recycled) or could a reusable version of the same product have worked just as well?
Recommended packaging options
Plastic bottles with transparent or natural colored caps
There are many ways to recycle clear or naturally colored plastics into other similar products, thus extending their lifespan in the circular economy. Colored plastic – while still recyclable – is only recycled in a darker shade, which limits its lifespan.
One consideration may be that your brand is associated with a certain color, however, there are many other ways to get creative with formats to ensure durability and maintain your shelf presence.
Metal and aluminum containers
These types of packaging are excellent packaging materials when used in context. First, they are incredibly strong and stable in the supply chain.
Secondly, they help preserve the product for a long time and successfully contain the drinks under pressure. They are also stackable, easy to store and can be recycled endlessly in a closed loop, regardless of the print quantity.
Compostable carrier bags
Some UK food retailers have launched bio-based and compostable bags, when their customers forget to bring a reusable alternative.
They are made from renewable materials strong enough to be reused, but when no longer needed for groceries, they can be reused as a basket liner for food waste, a trash bag safely in a composting system industrial or general waste (without leaving microplastics behind). ).
However, this type of packaging is only optimal when it is composted and not recycled. If a compostable bag has been put with your recycling in dry mix, it risks contaminating all the other recyclables inside, spoiling the whole batch.
Commonly used around packages of cereal, pasta and other dry goods, cardboard is thicker than paper but, unlike corrugated cardboard, is made of a single layer. It’s strong enough to display these items on shelves and throughout the supply chain, yet thin enough to be extremely efficient at its job.
It can be recycled in paper and cardboard bins, thus entering the circular economy. Its recyclability, however, can be spoiled if it becomes contaminated with food scraps or liquid, contaminating other recyclable materials and missing the opportunity to return to a closed loop.
Pots, trays and plastic trays
There are seven different types of plastic. If you want to use plastic, rigid PET and polypropylene (PP) are widely recyclable. In addition to beverage bottles, PET is prevalent in food trays. It is durable, widely recyclable, may contain recycled content and is carbon efficient.
Not only can it be recycled into new food-safe packaging containers, but even into fabrics and furniture. PP is the second most widely used rigid plastic, but it cannot currently be recycled into food-safe formats. Because it tolerates high heat, it is very efficient and robust in any supply chain.
Packaging to review
Single-use or refillable plastic pouches
The range of refillable formats (often for soap and cleaning products) has expanded. Sachets for refilling in other bottles are common forms, with consumers perceiving both as an environmentally friendly option.
At first glance, the bottle reuse factor is attractive and worthwhile, however, the pouches themselves cannot be recycled as they are multi-material and multi-layered to protect the product inside.
Laminated cardboard boxes
Beverage cartons might seem like a good option due to their similarity to cardboard. In fact, they are more problematic than plastic bottles.
Two factors reduce their recyclability; they are made of a mixture of different materials, so they are more difficult to separate in the recycling process and are often mistaken for recyclable cardboard, which causes contamination.
Foil bags (such as packets of crisps) are a problem in regular recycling because, although they look like aluminum foil, they are actually just metallized plastic film. These packets are therefore a hybrid of different plastics, which are not easily recyclable.
The great thing about glass is that it can be recycled multiple times in a closed loop (i.e. broken, melted down, and reproduced in a new item) or even refilled. This gives the impression that it is better than plastic and other equivalent formats.
However, the cost of manufacturing glass has a particularly high carbon footprint due to the original manufacturing process, as well as during remanufacturing when recycled. It is often a less durable option as a refill due to the combination of its weight and the long distances it can travel.
Key points to remember
Adopting sustainable packaging options for your business will mean avoiding waste in the first place. If you ensure that more of the waste you generate can be reused or recycled, both of these will help you achieve those all-important sustainability goals and ultimately protect the planet.
Consumers are more environmentally conscious than ever, even choosing lesser-known sustainable brands over household names with less eco-friendly attributes.
The simple act of replacing one material with another or completely changing the format can have a huge positive impact on your company’s long-term sustainability credentials, but make these changes with care, as even reusable and refillable formats are not not always recyclable.
It’s often overlooked that adapting your business model and packaging to support the circular economy will attract more sustainability-minded talent to your business and help you grow by driving sales. There’s never been a better time to prioritize packaging.
Biffa has produced guides for consumers and businesses to promote better recycling: