Want the truth about sustainable packaging? It’s complicated – but consumers and brands are both committed to change, says Matt Chittock
Today’s shoppers are serious about sustainability. Geed up by the powerful words of Greta Thunberg – and scolded into action by the nation’s kindly grandpa, David Attenborough – they’re loudly demanding change.
Currently, most of people’s righteous fury is focused on plastic. According to figures from sustainable business insights supplier edie, 82% of consumers say the amount of plastic packaging on food and drink needs to be ‘drastically’ reduced.
Where consumer opinion goes, brands are sure to follow, and companies large and small are dealing with the fallout from their demands. It’s influencing whole industries, as reflected by the changing briefs design agencies are receiving.
“From our perspective the biggest trend [in sustainability] is losing all traces of plastic within our clients’ packaging,” explains Adam Arnold from brand agency Brandality. “We’re exploring new plastic alternatives. But with consumer perceptions so strongly against plastic currently, even something that looks like plastic could have a negative effect.”
The power of the plastic backlash means brands are scrambling around for a sustainable alternative – whether that’s biodegradable packaging, recyclable card, or bamboo. These brands generally mean well, but what if this search for the next sustainable magic bullet material is causing more harm than good?
At Cosmosprof earlier this year, the standout sustainability session suggested that simply replacing unsustainable materials with something considered more eco-friendly – such as bamboo – isn’t always the answer. After all, a material thought of as innocuous may cause environmental problems when used at scale (just ask soya milk producers).
Whole systems approach. So what exactly can be done to create a more sustainable future? The answer is both simpler and much more complex than consumers and brands might realize.
Livvy Drake runs sustainable business and behaviour change agency Sustainable Sidekicks. As well as face-to-face consultations, she offers online courses for brands, helping them take a ‘whole systems approach’ to their packaging, rather than focusing on a one-size-fits-all answer.
“It’s about the end-of-life scenario for the packaging,” she says. “That means making decisions based on how people are actually using the products at home. It’s about understanding what recycling options people have available to them.”
She illustrates her point with a story about plastics. Say someone uses a product in a polyethylene terephthalate PET plastic pot (one of the easiest plastics to recycle). Then they switch to packaging that needs to be composted. The problem is that they probably haven’t got a composter at home, and the local composting facility can’t discern between different materials – they’ll burn anything that looks like plastic.
“If a biodegradable cup gets into the sea, it could pose just as much of a problem to marine life as
a conventional plastic cup”
So while the ‘bad’ PET plastic would have gone to be recycled, the supposedly ‘better’ option goes to make more waste.
This is compounded by the fact that how companies think about packaging has changed over the years. It used to be considered an asset – which the producers wanted back to use again (think about the old-fashioned milk delivery service’s glass bottles). Unfortunately packaging has evolved to become lighter, cheaper and ultimately more disposable.
“I think what’s happening is that companies are trying to do better,” says Drake.“But there are unintended consequences down the line, and they don’t quite have the knowledge to understand what these are.”
Drake adds that currently there’s also no regulation about what terms like ‘bio-plastic’ or ‘biodegradable’ actually mean, and this causes confusion.
“It’s often unintentional deception,” she says. “So you have words like ‘bio’ and people think that means the product is made out of plants. Or that ‘eco’ means it’s green. One water brand uses wording like ‘boxed water is better’ – but better than what exactly?”
“There’s also greenwashing too. That just makes consumers feel cheated and angry when they find out they’re not getting what they were promised. That makes them less likely to trust someone else.”
This confusion was part of the portfolio that civil society brought to the Government when MPs presented evidence on the environment earlier this year. NGOs talked about the problem of encouraging compostable materials, when the right industrial composting facilities aren’t available.
Plus, as Juliet Phillips from the Environmental Investigation Agency pithily put it: “If a biodegradable cup gets into the sea, it could pose just as much of a problem to marine life as a conventional plastic cup.”
A packaging journey
So, it’s complex. Yet the desire for change is definitely there. Brands just need to go back to brass tacks and work out what the packaging really does and where it ends up.
This isn’t about having all the answers. Drake suggests that brands level with their customers about this; that they explain they’re on a genuine journey, and although they don’t have the perfect solution, they’re changing things for the better.
It’s an approach Just Natural has adopted on its packaging journey. Earlier this year it launched new plastic-free packaging made from a laminate of a cellulose film plus polylactic acid from sugar cane for its nuts, seeds, oats and other food products.
“Two years ago we started to look at recyclable plastic options,” says Logan Holiday from brand owner CLF Distribution. “But then we thought – why not try to go one better?”
It wasn’t always a straightforward process. “Along the way we had a number of challenges,” says Holiday. “First, we needed packaging approved by the Soil Association. Unfortunately, lots of the solutions we looked at used GMO corn. Also, there was the issue of structural integrity. Sometimes we deal with quite large quantities of product. We needed to make sure 1kg bags wouldn’t burst everywhere when you put them on the floor.”
Holiday adds that it’s important to be clear to consumers about what the packaging is made from and what needs to happen when they’re done with it.
He adds that overall customer feedback has been good. “The majority of people have praised what we’re trying to do. The only problems are when people don’t understand practical things aren’t the same – like shelf-life.”
The process of trying to find the right solution can impact positively; just one company starting to ask questions of their suppliers can push things forward for everybody. “Working with your suppliers is really important,” says Drake. “Right now, the packaging solutions that you need might not be available on the market. But if you go to suppliers and say ‘this is what we need to achieve’, then you can create demand. There’s a lot of innovation happening.”
But in the beauty and grooming sector, however ‘natural’ the ingredients, any materials surrounding the product remain a massive headache. Packaging innovation can begin by removing those ultra-problematic parts of the packaging – eg plastic – from the outset.
New Zealand brand Ethique has done just that, and is aiming to revolutionize the sector with cleansers, scrubs and deodorants in solid bars, rather than liquid in plastic containers.
“My goal is for Ethique to become a global trusted brand that ‘puts a bar in every shower’,” says founder Brianne West. “That bar doesn’t have to be an Ethique bar,” she continues, explaining that the brand is trying to encourage consumers to retrain their brains to automatically reach for a plastic-free bar. “With that,” she adds, “we encourage businesses to think about their packaging.”
Whatever solutions emerge over the next few years, we all need to think fast. The horrifying truth is that unless we sort out packaging soon, life on Earth is going to get a whole lot less pleasant from hereon in. And it’ll be far more than our packaging that gets trashed.
Alara pioneers home compoastable packaging since 2018
Cereal-industry pioneers, Alara Wholefoods, have created packaging that is plastic free, zero waste and home compostable. The Alara cereal inner bags may look like plastic, but it’s more accurate to think of them as very specialist see-through paper, made primarily with eucalyptus cellulose. The ‘OK compost HOME’ label refers to products that have surpassed industrial composting tests and compost at lower temperatures, so they can go into the compost heap in your garden at home or your food waste bin: it is currently the most prestigious symbol that can be applied to packaging! Alara is the first cereal company in the world to use home compostable film.
Patchouli and Sandalwood Soap
Friendly Soap Ltd
Warm, comforting, yet undeniably exotic – that’s the sun-filled scent of patchouli and red sandalwood packed into this rich and alluring soap. It’s not just easy on the nose too: the patchouli and sandalwood blend has antibacterial properties and helps maintain great skin, while a rich trio of oils keeps you marvellously moisturised. Each Patchouli & Sandalwood bar is handmade in Yorkshire with Coconut Oil, Shea Butter, Olive Oil, Patchouli essential oil and Sandalwood powder then carefully packed by hand into a recycled and recyclable card box. What’s not to like! 1 x 95g – £2.25.
Switching to LoofCo products is a simple way to reduce plastic waste in the home. This ingenious range of compostable & recyclable pads, scourers and brushes for washing-up, household cleaning and bath-time offers a great value, durable alternative to the plastic sponges and scourers that often end up in landfill. Instead, plastic-free LoofCo products are made using sustainable coconut and loofah plant fibres to traditional proven designs. LoofCo packaging is sustainable too – product labels use plant-based inks on FSC card secured with compostable cellulose stickers. In store FSC cardboard display cases require no plastic tape to seal them.
Dr. Bronner’s exclusively uses 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) polyethylene (PET) plastic bottles for all liquid and pump soaps. They have been using 100% PCR PET bottles for more than ten years, long before this was common in the personal care industry.
By turning used plastic bottles into new plastic bottles and products, they help conserve virgin resources, reduce landfill, and capitalize on the energy already invested in making existing plastic products. Recycling one ton of PET containers saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space!
“Bottle-to-bottle” recycling, the recycling of plastic bottles into new bottles, is also uncommon. Most times the plastic picked up on curbsides is “downcycled,” shipped to countries like China, where it’s used to create synthetic fabrics, then shipped around the world. Bottle-to-bottle recycling helps to close the loop and results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Approximately half of all our post-consumer recycled plastic bottles are made of a resin called CarbonLite, which is made from plastic sourced from curbside pick-ups in the state of California. This means that some of our bottles are made from locally-sourced 100% post-consumer recycled PET, and may even include some plastic from old Dr. Bronner’s bottles!
We also continue to keep close tabs on innovations taking place in bio-plastics research. Bio-plastics use renewable resources like plants and bacteria to create plastic that would otherwise be produced from petroleum. This technology is still in its early stages and doesn’t yet produce plastics that are resilient enough for our purposes. Also, before adopting bio-plastics we would need assurance that the plants used in production were sustainably grown and not made from pesticide-intensive GMO-corn. As of now, turning plants into plastic remains more energy intensive than recycling used plastic. Still, we have great hope for the future of this potentially industry-changing innovation.
Huski Home Sustainable Rice Husk Travel Cups
Huski Home is a family run company that puts sustainability first by utilising natural waste products and turning them into eco-friendly products for consumers to use in their daily lives. Our sustainable rice husk travel cups aim to reduce the need for single use disposable materials whilst on the go and being twin walled makes them suitable for both hot and cold drinks keeping them hot or cold for up to 90 minutes. The cups are biodegradable and come in two sizes and multiple colours, making them great for tea and coffee or smoothies and protein shakes.
Every home deserves a green clean!
At KINN we believe in the power of plants, and we believe that they can change the world! Our environment both privately and in the wider World need to be cared for, and we think the best way to do this is to cut the harsh chemicals. Our natural cleaning and laundry formulas are just as effective as traditional cleaners but without the petrochemicals, phosphates, enzymes, synthetic fragrance and animal by-products. We don’t see much point in using dye and we don’t test on animals.
Biona Organic Meat Substitutes in Glass Jars
Biona Organic Meat Substitutes in glass jars help you do your bit for the environment, by offering plastic free alternatives to your weekly shop. The range includes Organic Tofu, Tempeh and Seitan, which can all be used as hearty meat alternatives in your favourite meals, providing you with a natural, plant-based protein source. Tofu in particular is often found packaged in single-use plastic, but these jars can be used again or again, or simply recycled.
Make, Use, Repeat…
Do you need your products to be made in recycled plastic? With the focus on recycling plastic high on the agenda Measom Freer have successfully trialled the use of black recycled polypropylene in their injection moulded products. The plastic is extracted from recycled vehicle batteries and although the material is not food approved it is suitable for re-use in industrial and other sectors. Measom Freer can manufacture to order any of their stock measures 0.5 – 150ml, scoops small to large, spatulas, fasteners, a wide variety of closures including screw, tall, spouted, luer, dropper and nozzle caps and tubes in this material. Recently accredited with BSI ISO14001 in Environmental Management you can rely on Measom Freer to put the environment at its heart and supply a recycled product that your customer will love, and they can recycle it again after they have used it! Small to large orders are welcome, next day delivery from our stock products, please contact our Sales Team for samples to test your product with.
OrganiCup – The sustainable menstrual cup
OrganiCup is the healthier, easier and greener period alternative to disposable pads and tampons. We believe in providing everyone with the possibility of a safe, comfortable and sustainable period solution. OrganiCup is reusable for years, saving the environment for a huge amount of waste per user from disposable pads/tampons. Not only is the cup itself a much greener alternative, OrganiCup also has a very distinct packaging made of recycled carton. The user guide is printed directly on the inside of the packaging to prevent additional waste and the storage bag for the cup is made of unbleached, organic cotton. Certified Vegan and AllergyCertified.
Willy’s natural energy drink
GROWN, MADE AND GOOD FOR YOU. Introducing Willy’s Natural Energy Drink with Kombucha and Apple Cider Vinegar. Created with hydration, rejuvenation and gentle energy in mind, Willy’s NED has been made using five health-boosting ingredients, including Green Tea Kombucha and Willy’s craft ACV with the all-important ‘mother’. With only a trace of caffeine and no added sugar, Willy’s Natural Energy Drink will gently energise and revitalise your body. Willy’s is bringing a new, modern twist to the age-old tradition of fermenting by creating a whole range of healthy drinks made from all-natural ingredients. Packed in an aluminium can – metal recycles forever!