Saving money and the planet with sustainable packaging

Many British businesses are driving the green agenda forward through their commitment to sustainable packaging

Saving money and the planet with sustainable packaging

Taking an interest in the environmental impact of packaging isn’t just for the hardened eco-warrior. It can help companies build a competitive advantage over rivals and provide assurances to customers that they are prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.

Today we generate ever increasing quantities of packaging to wrap the things we consume. Packaging is everywhere, and despite our best efforts only around 67% is properly disposed of. A lot of the time businesses take the brunt of the blame but more and more often they have been taking real steps to respond and find an approach which is both environmentally friendly and meets their marketing needs.

A recent study by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) showed that such action can actually be good for business. Corporations that actively manage and plan for climate change were shown to secure an 18% higher return on investment than companies that don’t – and 67% higher than companies who refuse to disclose their emissions. Those companies at the forefront have an opportunity to enhance their reputation in the eyes of society in general and create significant long-term value.

Lucy Frankel, communications director at Vegware, agrees. “Sustainable packaging makes economic and environmental sense, and proves that behind your brand there are real human beings who care about their impact on the world.”

Vegware is the UK’s first and only completely compostable food packaging firm. It is pioneering the development and manufacture of eco-friendly catering disposables and food packaging. Its 250+ products, spanning from tableware to hot and cold drinking cups, are stylish, functional, economic and sustainable.

It works with a network of distributors across the UK to deliver a range of eco-disposables to its clients. “Selling food is all about presentation and the experience, which is why companies invest in good branding and presentation,” says Frankel. “By integrating sustainability through packaging, companies can get a higher return on capital and gain value for their future.”

The eco-impact of packaging is an increasingly global concern. A grocery store in Berlin, for example, recently said ‘auf wiedersehen’ to packaging altogether in a ‘precycling’ move to avoid the acquisition of unnecessary waste before it accumulates. The package-free shop, Original Unverpackt (translation: Originally Unpackaged), follows a European trend which has seen similar stores crop up in Bordeaux in south-western France, the Austrian capital, Vienna, and Italy, which boasts two. 

When it came to the crunch, even UK crisp manufacturer Walkers saw the light and last year it reduced the packaging on Quavers by 30%. The company claims the move will mean less waste on our landfills and see “100,000 miles taken off the road”. The new multi-packs contain the same six 16.4g bags of the cheese flavoured potato snack but the outer film now contains less wrap.

Many UK retailers and food manufacturers are going sustainability crazy with their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) plans. The UK government has played a vital role in this with its efforts in improving resource efficiency and reducing waste in the UK grocery sector. Most recently it has funded and encouraged companies to sign up to the Courtauld Commitment. This is a voluntary agreement delivered by WRAP, which supports the UK government’s policy goal of a ‘zero waste economy’ and climate change objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It works in partnership with leading retailers, brand owners, manufacturers and suppliers who sign up and support the delivery of the targets.

While this coincides with mounting signs of a seismic shift in the environmental response of SMEs, it is pressure from consumers that is having the greatest impact on behaviour. As sustainability becomes more embedded in our personal behaviours, it comes out in our spending behaviours as customers. Although there may occasionally be a knock-on effect on price in the short-term, for many it is a price worth paying. This in turn sees investors increasingly interested in sustainability objectives in order to protect their interests, with many including a sustainability strategy as part of their investment decision criteria.

“UK consumers are aware of packaging waste through coverage in the media and have a good understanding of the environmental benefits of carton packaging and how easy it is to recycle at the end of its life,” says Nikki Clark, group marketing manager for the Benson Group, the printed folding carton supplier.

The Benson Group aims to be a leader in the production of sustainable cartons, leaflets and labels produced for the packaging industry. Its main customers are food and beverage processors. “We work hard to improve environmental responsibility across the supply chain,” says Clark.

A big part of the sustainability effort is making products that are long-lasting. The Versapak Group, for example, is a company that helps businesses store and transport documents and sensitive items. Its reusable and tamper-evident bags and cash in transit bags are used by leading companies in many industries throughout the world.  

Traditional storage methods often involve the use of cardboard boxes, which are easily damaged when subjected to wear and tear so they cannot be reused continuously. This results in tonnes of cardboard and paper having to be disposed of or recycled by businesses across the globe. Versapak has addressed that problem and come up with an environmentally friendly solution. Its bags are ethically created out of recyclable materials and they are built to last. They come with a five-year guarantee as standard, many last longer. The company claims some well-loved and used bags last as long as 35 years. This healthy lifespan minimises waste and the need for recycling, helping customers to “do their bit for their environment”.

“We are all about longevity and sustainability for us is very much about making things reusable,” says Julie Goddard, business manager at Versapak. “All of our products are made to be used up to 2000 times.”

The ability of such companies to come up with new and innovative ways to reduce and improve packaging is remarkable. Duo UK has been around for more than 25 years, delivering consistently high quality packaging products. It is one of the UK’s most trusted packaging manufacturers and suppliers and among its customers are some of the leading retail, mail order, e-retail and industrial brands.

“It’s important to us because we know how important it is to our customers,” says Zoe Brimelow, brand director for Duo UK. “We intend on investing in new products that encourage sustainability.”

Duo is to be the first UK-based manufacturer to produce mailing bags using green PE, a thermoplastic resin made entirely from sugarcane ethanol. Also known as green polythene, it has been developed by Braskem, the largest petrochemical producer in the Americas, which has recently signed a partnership with Resin Trade to distribute its goods in the UK and Ireland. Sugarcane is a water efficient crop which also captures carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and is planted through strict ethical guidelines. Each kilogram of green plastic produced using this method saves 2.15kg of CO2, when compared to the production of conventional oil-based polythene. 

This is particularly valuable for clients seeking to achieve carbon neutral status, or for those looking to be one step ahead of potential CO2 taxes, which are currently being mooted.

“We are challenging our suppliers and partners about what new products are coming to the foresight and we can offer that to our customers,” says Brimelow. “Everyone has to be responsible for their own area and making sure they are innovating and opening themselves up to new developments.” 

Duo has been awarded the Investors in People standard and Paul Brown, an apprentice at the company, was named Apprentice of the Year at the Plastics Industry Awards 2012.

There is a perception that sustainability is expensive and in a lot of cases it is. But as Brimelow says, a large part of that is R&D money for new products, which will decrease over time. “You have to look at the whole life-cycle,” she says.

Going green on packaging can both improve a company’s operating performance – typically by lowering costs – and increase trust in its brand. An environmental commitment will support business growth and help customers and clients achieve their own sustainability objectives. The relationship between business, consumers and regulators is cyclical and the drive for sustainability is only set to grow from here on. 

Ryan McChrystal
Ryan McChrystal

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