Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, many coffee shops have stopped serving drinks in reusable ceramic mugs in favour of disposable cups. Likewise, some supermarket products that are not usually packaged have been wrapped to ensure safety and hygiene. Meanwhile, lockdown living has meant more packaging for grocery deliveries and takeout meals.
This increase in the use of added layers of packaging highlights one of our most prevalent eco-dilemmas: the trade-off between maximum hygiene measures and unnecessary waste.
In many areas of life, progress on sustainability seemed to stall, at least momentarily, as businesses and individuals entered survival mode and spent less time and energy worrying about their environmental impact. However, as we shift from survival mode and crisis management and view the pandemic as a unique opportunity to reset global systems, environmental issues are again very much back on the agenda.
Given that the global food system is responsible for as much as 37% of total greenhouse emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, improving sustainability through packaging is critical. The choice of material for food packaging is crucial too, and renewable, fibre-based materials are a good, hygienic and safe alternative to non-renewable plastics.
Food packaging: critical to the planet’s health
“The pandemic has changed the way packaging is used – and not always for good,” says Mark Dodds, chair of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s food, drink and agriculture sector interest group. “Online and click-and-collect mean that some producers have had to include additional packaging, so that their products withstand the rough and tumble of these growing channels.
“While this is fine for now, it’s not ideal in the long term. And once consumers settle into the ‘new normal’, they will once again be focusing on how the bigger retailers are looking at tackling plastic reduction.”
A study on sustainable packaging in the UK, published in October by the consumer intelligence platform Toluna, found that excessive packaging was “the most pressing concern” among respondents. Almost half (47%) said that the ability to recycle packaging holds the key to eliminating packaging waste. The study also found that 36% of those aged 18-25 regard sustainable packaging as “very important”, compared with 26% of those aged 55 and over.
Consumers can drive the sustainability agenda
Dodds believes customer demand will drive meaningful change. “Before the pandemic, there was a real focus on packaging and the environment, and I have no doubt this will return,” he says. “For consumers, it’s about being vocal and letting manufacturers know that the environmental impact of products is a key decision point in deciding what to purchase. Choose products that use less packaging and use the growing number of refill stations.”
He says that producers should continue to invest in reducing wasteful packaging as this will reap dividends. “There are some great schemes out there, and innovative retailers will not lose sight of the impact their environmental credentials will have on their bottom line.”
Tony Hitchin, general manager of Pro Carton – the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard manufacturers – agrees, and lauds developments in paper fibre-based packaging in particular. “Put simply, it is the most environmentally-friendly option and should be used wherever possible.”
He says October’s European Carton Excellence Awards saw some “phenomenal” food and drink packaging innovations. Customers of Stora Enso, the Helsinki-based renewable materials company, won two awards: Carton of the Year; and Save the Planet. The Eco Fit Lid, which won the latter prize, earns special praise from Hitchin. “The Eco Fit lid, which was created by Seda International Packaging Group using Stora Enso’s cartonboard, is used by McDonald’s, among others. It is fully recyclable and compostable, making it the ultimate sustainable solution to the plastic lids often used by fast-food outlets.”
Another good example of paper fibre packaging is Stora Enso’s material for beverage cups – Cupforma Natura – which features a three-layer fibre construction with chemi-thermomechanical pulp in the middle layer. It also offers different choices for barrier coatings.
Hitchin predicts a continued move to paper-based cartonboard, adding: “New sustainable barrier materials are developing at pace.”
Thanks to innovations such as these, when it comes to food packaging, businesses don’t always have to face a trade-off between hygiene and sustainability.
Who to talk to?
Visit storaenso.com/who-to-talk-to to find out