The Future of Plastic and Sustainable Packaging

January 18, 2018 | Insights
Piles of plastic waste

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.

Early in 2018, 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. It’s now 2019 and we’re continuing to see companies make pledges and others implementing action

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, the launch of the UK Government’s 25-year Environment Plan in January and more recently the landmark Resources and Waste Strategy.

Plastic – a Success Story and a Disaster

Plastic is both a huge 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. As our consumption patterns have changed from reusable-focused to favoring single-use application, plastic has suited everyone from business owners to end consumers. Innovation around plastic since its introduction in the 1950s has resulted in lower cost, lightweight packaging with added transport impact benefits which not only protect, but in the case of some food items, enhance product shelf life.

Wrong Actions for True Plastic Sustainability?

There’s no denying that the failure to address the littering caused by irresponsible consumer behavior 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. 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 Issues and Solutions

Any company thinking about starting out on this journey towards plastic sustainability 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 the alternatives available.

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.

Graphic showing segments of the plastics market

Solutions to Plastic Packaging Across the 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 Life Cycle Assessments 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

The graphic above shows how we’ve split the plastic market into three segments: circular supply chain, business development and governance. Each segment offers some of the solutions being put into place to help solve the intricate plastic-based issues at hand. There’s no one-solution fits all approach with each needing to be considered from an individual business perspective. 

Tracking the Drivers of Change

We have been tracking the drivers of 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 continuing to remain in the government, business and consumer 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 much more about the plastic challenge on our in-depth plastic sustainability resource page or if you’re looking for a quicker read, download our the sustainable plastics challenge PDF guide.

Debbie Hitchen
Director, UK
Debbie leads the Sustainable Products, Circularity and Chemistry team. She has a strong track record in project management, business development and consultancy and is recognised for her ability to build and manage multi-stakeholder teams and her capability to deliver complex, collaborative and sensitive projects. She has an extensive understanding of the drivers and challenges of sustainable materials management having worked in a local authority, at a leading producer responsibility compliance organisation and over 15 years in consultancy.

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