we purchase, then package for confusion

Packaging – it’s the price we pay for convenience, on a consumer level at least. This growth in material use presents a real dilemma for both manufacturers who want to preserve product quality, and retailers, who have to sell it to consumers.

For many a shopper, packaging is the visible, ugly side of waste. It’s what they are left with once they’ve removed the product – and the more they are left with, the more disgruntled they feel. Packaging waste regularly pops up in the top five green bugbears of shopper surveys.

Retailers are only too conscious of this and are working hard to come up with novel solutions that look like less to the consumer – such as lightweighting – while simultaneously crunching down on carbon impacts. What often transpires as a result is a complicated material mix.

One sustainability manager I met recently talked me through how his company, a well-known household name, is dealing with this conundrum. Each product is set against a footprint graph which looks at various factors such as sustainable sourcing, design and manufacture, use at home and end-of-life.

This graph pinpoints hotspots within the life cycle of the product – areas where there are opportunities to reduce waste for instance, or to utilise greater recycled content. These hotspots are then worked upon. However, it is a delicate balancing act as tweaking one element tends to have a knock-on effect on another element within the product journey.

So if you look at using a lighter material for example, this could carry a heavier carbon footprint through increased energy use. If you design a packaging solution that has more recycled content, it may prove harder for the consumer to remove all of the product from it – toothpaste tubes are a good illustration of this.

All of this before we take into consideration how easy the packaging itself is to recycle. More complicated material mixes pose big problems when it comes reprocessing them – we don’t yet have enough sophisticated technology in place to separate out the different components during the recycling process to the quality levels required.

So when I hear bold statements like the launch of a ‘zero waste shampoo’ it makes me suspicious. In this case, a container has been developed which claims to squeeze every last drop of shampoo out … really? I find that hard to believe, and even if it were true, what about the carbon impact of the tube itself?

Packaging is such an elaborate issue – it can’t be easily boxed into simple shades of sustainability. Both manufacturers and retailers need to be braver in their transparency. They need to educate consumers about the product journey of packaging and make them realise it’s not just about the end-point; what they see on the shelves or what they put into their recycling bins. It is so much more than that.

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