In the shadow of the pandemic, there may be an even greater threat lurking for the FMCG industry and thus also for the label and packaging industry
It is absolutely understandable and comprehensible that the entire human race is dealing with the pandemic, since the direct and indirect effects are being brought out in front of us every day and we all feel it. Yes, a pandemic is a great danger to life and limb and also to the global economy. And it is not one that cannot be minimised or played down.
But a far greater danger, which is currently slumbering in the shadow of the pandemic and has been pushed into the background here and there by COVID 19 topicality, is the careless use of resources. In plain language this means environmental pollution, environmental protection.
It is therefore appropriate to quote from the LANCET Report in order to demonstrate the threat we are facing:
“Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today. Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015—16% of all deaths worldwide— three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four. Pollution disproportionately kills the poor and the vulnerable. Nearly 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries and, in countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalised. Children are at high risk of pollutionrelated disease and even extremely low-dose exposures to pollutants during windows of vulnerability in utero and in early infancy can result in disease, disability, and death in childhood and across their lifespan. “
And if one believes that human life is the only victim of pollution, let one consider what unsustainable productions and systems are causing world economic damage year after year:
“Pollution is costly. Pollution-related diseases cause productivity losses that reduce gross domestic product (GDP) in low-income to middle-income countries by up to 2% per year. Pollution-related disease also results in health-care costs that are responsible for 1·7% of annual health spending in high-income countries and for up to 7% of health spending in middle-income countries that are heavily polluted and rapidly developing. Welfare losses due to pollution are estimated to amount to US$4·6 trillion per year: 6·2% of global economic output.”
A systemic correct sustainability is the order of the day and necessary. The current pandemic in particular shows us that it is very difficult to deal with global threats. And unsustainable production in all supply chains is a global threat in the long run. Therefore, preventive measures must be taken jointly. Because there will be no vaccine for this.
We have made a big mistake: we have created an abstraction from the idea of sustainability, and this abstraction does not allow us to see the true extent of the threat. We are seeing polar bears losing their habitat, soils that are drying up, children starving to death in Sudan, sea levels that will eventually rise, and 2050 is still a very long time off for some people. We see a lot of plastic floating in the oceans, and we are upset or engaged when sea creatures get caught in it. Very few of us are aware that they are actually threatened by it, both directly and personally. Nor do we realise well enough that all supply chains, which are fragile anyway, could collapse more quickly than we could ever imagine if certain factors were to be overturned. And this is not a pessimistic view or doom and gloom, it is reality. And the truth is never comfortable. But we have to face this truth and initiate transformations together. Unfortunately, we all abstractly call it climate policy or CO2 targets. This transfigures the view and perception of danger. Let’s call a spade a spade: existential threat through excessive intervention in ecosystems.
Sustainability must be implemented on a science-based basis and populist measures must give way to system-integrated measures. However, the entire supply chain is called upon to do this. The label and packaging industry must also take a closer look at this issue. In a two-part series we show how systemic sustainability can be considered.
Sophie Kieselbach & Flora D’Souza| Senior Consultants at Sphera outline the nine top trends in sustainability with a plea for a systemic and holistic view.
Let us first take a look at some figures before we come to the trends:
And let’s take a quick look at some data related to drought. Dates that are often forgotten:
What is the material consumption index in the EU? So how much raw material is consumed per capita?
(The indicator is defined as the total amount of material directly used in an economy and equals direct material input (DMI) minus exports. DMI measures the direct input of materials for the use in the economy. DMI equals domestic extraction (DE) plus imports. For the ‘per capita’ calculation of the indicator the average population is used (the arithmetic mean of the population on 1st January of two consecutive years). Domestic Material Consumption (DMC) is based on the Economy-wide Material Flow Accounts (EW-MFA). The theory of Economy-wide material flow accounts includes compilations of the overall material inputs into national economy, the changes of material stock within the economy and the material outputs to other economies or to the environment. EW-MFA covers all solid, gaseous, and liquid materials, except water and air. Water included in products is included)
The Top 9 Sustainable Packaging Trends
The strongest trends in the packaging industry all revolve around circular economy. Why? At least in the EU context, it’s driven primarily by political pressure and consumer perception regarding packaging. China (and now India) are closing their doors to waste, environmental groups are lobbying to stop plastic pollution in the oceans and the EU continues to strengthen its resource protectionism. These developments are at the heart of the EU’s decision to embrace circular economy. Its simple and easy-to-love code relies on the same three words that defined the environmental movement in the 80s and 90s: reduce, reuse, recycle. However, now the EU is passing regulations faster than usual, including regulations to increase recycling rates and recycled content and laws to reduce single-use plastics. As a result, manufacturers are rushing to reach their own quotas and targets, scrambling to solve a puzzle whose edges are still ill-defined. Here we want to provide our views on current trends to draw attention to the potential shortcomings of each and offer suggestions for tackling them.
Design for Recycling
More recycling is, of course, a great development. The question is how to enable a net positive effect on the environment and the economy. In order to be recycled, post-consumer packaging has to fulfill a long list of requirements (e.g., separability, cleanliness, labelling and coloration). Manufacturers trying to fulfill those requirements may have to use more material and energy when they produce the packaging than they have done up until now.
Additionally, just because a packaging product is designed for recycling today, does not automatically mean that it will be recycled. And even if it is recycled, the environmental footprint may not be improved. Most recycling technologies currently in use, require a lot of energy and the quality of the recovered material is lower than virgin material. Hence, the sustainable packaging design often has a less-than-desirable net impact on the environment. And this doesn’t even include the effects of having less feedstock for incinerators to recover energy from.
Designing for recycling is certainly imperative to future-proof one’s business, our economy and humanity itself. But first we need to ensure recyclability equals recycling, preferably in a closed-loop system.
Our suggestion: Make your recyclable designs comprehensive by keeping the recycling infrastructure in mind. Regulators should match recycling quotas (e.g., EU recycling rate of 75% of packaging waste by 2030) to regional capacities and plan the expansion of the recycling streams in coordination with those quotas.
Our Circular Recycling Challenge
While recyclers are springing up all over the place with new technologies, the key issues to solve are (1) volume and (2) quality—we are a long way from where we need to be. Lately, we hear a lot about the volume problem in the news, that South-East Asian countries, especially Thailand and Malaysia, are accepting over 200% of previous volumes of waste for recycling. They dispose of superfluous waste in endless landfills, where part of it ends up as ocean plastic, or they burn it (illegally) in the open air, releasing noxious fumes over local settlements.
While there is a large volume of waste produced, recycling infrastructure remains very selective of the kind of waste it accepts. Recycling technologies that have moved beyond the testing phase can only work with waste that fulfills a long list of criteria (sortability, cleanliness, labelling, coloration, etc.).
So why do products designed for recycling still fail to be recycled? The simple answer is because the infrastructure does not yet exist to handle the volume we produce, so our recyclable waste is exported to Southeast Asia. On the other hand, infrastructure will only expand to handle the large volume if there are sufficient volumes of high-quality waste that can be recycled (e.g., sortability, etc.). Therefore, our recycling challenge is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem. This is where legislation can break the deadlock. The current legislation in and influenced by the EU, however, has only taken care of one end of the value chain—recyclability. Unless recycling itself is incentivized and regulated, the mismatch will continue to result in detrimental environmental outcomes.
Design for Reuse
Reuse is more difficult to envision than recycling given our current mindset. It requires us to move away from the way we currently handle packaging—tearing open and throwing away or recycling. It may also necessitate more robust and sustainable packaging materials that need to withstand washing and sterilization. It also needs to have well-built infrastructure to collect, wash, sterilize, refill and return the packaging to consumers. It is the milkman method made anew.
There have been various small-scale attempts in the past. Since the World Economic Forum in January of this year, the LOOP Initiative has made headlines with all major brands in the cosmetics and personal care and the food and retail industries. LOOP is attractive for these industries, because it projects improvements, not only in the solitary world of circularity, but also in the broader spectrum of Life Cycle Assessment.
While we anticipate these projections to come true, we also feel obliged to report the risks. As with recycling, the risk for reuse is higher if the heavier, bulkier materials designed for reuse have a worse environmental impact than their reuse compensates for. In other words, we should never examine packaging impacts in isolation, but comprehensively, with a systems-thinking approach.
A recent screening study highlighted that a current version of a reusable PET bag carries a much higher impact than its single-use alternative. So much so that you would need to use the reusable bag at least 50 times to make it more sustainable. Manufacturers should therefore ensure that reuse is realistic in the actual customer setting and that that behavior actually compensates for any added impact in the material design changes. Manufacturers also need to calculate the additional impact of transporting, washing, sanitizing (possibly even tracking) and refilling those reusable containers.
Our suggestion: Increasing reuse is a must-win battle for optimizing resources and drastically reducing waste. However, companies need to use eco-design and life cycle thinking (systems thinking) and push for infrastructure of scale with a massive customer-base to make the transition truly environmentally sound.
Another trend on the rise is the increased use of bioplastics to replace fossil-fuel-based plastics. People tend to equate bioplastics with biodegradable or compostable, but they are not necessarily either of those. While bioplastics (also known as sustainable plastic packaging) are certainly interesting substitutes (identical in many of their physical and technical properties to their fossil-based counterparts), using them might only shift the environmental burden by reducing the carbon footprint while increasing acidification, the water footprint or other environmental impacts. We also have to keep in mind that introducing bioplastics may only alleviate the plastic problem, not solve it. An ingested bioplastic bag may still choke whales and other marine life.
Beyond burden-shifting, we also have a supply issue. How can we grow enough raw materials required to replace fossil-fuel packaging products with bioplastics? The only way is to increase the agricultural production of sugar cane or other feedstock. But agricultural production is already pressed to its limits, straining land areas that compete with food production. Deforestation to prepare the way for more agricultural land is certainly not a sustainable solution. And even with bioplastics, we won’t solve the general problem of the End-of-life waste streams
Our suggestion: Invest in R&D but try to avoid competing with agricultural production. Only use superfluous biomass waste that has no other application. Use eco-design and think about the product’s End-of-life to avoid shifting the environmental burden to another area.
Replace Plastics with Paper
Paper is even more frequently suggested as a substitute for plastic packaging than bioplastics (for example, paper cups and bags). However, current available data suggests that paper packaging generally requires several times more mass to fulfill the same function as its plastic counterpart. As a result, the overall environmental impact tends to be higher for paper, except in its carbon footprint. So again, this is a case of burden shifting: reducing carbon footprint but increasing impacts such as acidification and eutrophication. Additionally, replacing plastic with paper could likely give us a serious supply problem. If we were to replace all plastics with paper, we must either cut down more forests or find areas for reforestation. The latter would be a double benefit, of course, but do we actually have the space? Current data suggests that we still have a net loss of forests worldwide and that we are more likely to lose possible reforestation areas to other pressing needs, such as to the expansion of cities and towns, to agriculture and to industry.
Furthermore, paper and cardboard recycling facilities are already running at top capacity and would need to expand their operations to take in more recyclable waste. And at the moment, recycled paper does not seem to significantly decrease the total environmental impact of paper, at least not based on data we have available today.
Our suggestion: Watch for new developments in the paper market, especially if weight can be reduced. Be aware of the risk of burden shifting—always think systemically and holistically.
Reduce and Remove Packaging
Reducing and ultimately removing packaging from products, such as from bulk food items, is a lucrative way of minimizing the materials in circulation and ultimately the environmental impact of packaging. However, as was so beautifully demonstrated with the now-famous example of the shrink-wrapped cucumber, we should not exclude the purpose of packaging when we assess its environmental impact. If the packaging fails to fulfill its primary purpose of safeguarding the product’s quality, the product may go to waste, and the environmental impact of a wasted product is, in general, far higher than that of the avoided packaging material.
Our suggestion: Keep working to reduce packaging material within the limits allowed by its purpose. And if, as with some initiatives, you start a new product line with reduced packaging and therefore reduced product shelf-life, loudly communicate it to customers and continue to help them understand the reasoning behind the changes to make sure that the net benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Life cycle thinking, as always, helps.
Shift to Mono-Materials
Laminates and composite packaging from multiple materials constitute one of the biggest hurdles to achieving recyclability (not recycling itself, for which the biggest problem is collection and infrastructure). So manufacturers have made considerable effort to shift to mono-material packaging (laminates included). The risk here is that mono-material solutions can end up decidedly heavier and bulkier than their composite alternatives and may need other additives. The reason is simple, companies use aluminum layers in laminates because of their insulative properties that—when replaced by plastics or paper—require thicker layers and, ultimately, also more mass.
Our suggestion: Analyze alternatives carefully and quantitatively to ensure that for the same packaging quality, the mono-material alternative does not in fact increase overall environmental impacts or shift burdens from one environmental impact to another.
New Out-of-the-Box Ideas
What we haven’t touched on until now are new, out-of-the-box packaging ideas. There are a lot of innovative ideas out there, such as changing the form of packaging, completely enhancing stackability, emptiability, etc. We do know that for you to meet with success in outside-the-box thinking, you need not only brain power, but courage and investment. Innovation is hard, but all the more rewarding.
Our suggestion: Take the opportunity to reinvent packaging and don’t be afraid to make alliances with suppliers as well as the competition. Innovation is imperative to a sustainable future.
Customer is Key
While the customer is part of the change process in many of the above-mentioned initiatives, we want to emphasize this as a separate trend. Brands communicating and educating their customers on how to responsibly use and dispose of packaging are a key to the success in any and all areas. This positive development is luckily on the rise. The only danger is if we move toward over-simplified (and eventually incorrect) qualitative descriptions designed to enable all customers to decipher the message, but actually mislead the public.
Our suggestion: Ensure that the environmentally solid ideals are communicated appropriately for different levels of customer curiosity. Today we have the technology to add a tiny QR code to a label and link more details that would be too much for most customers, but satisfy the curiosity of others. Focus not only on engaging unresponsive or environmentally disinterested customers, but also on shaping the opinions of those who may have dragged onto the misled bandwagon (e.g., standard-bearers of “no packaging is the best packaging”).