By Howard Wright
As consumers, we’ve become pretty good at recycling our packaging waste over the past couple of decades. It’s become second nature to sort cardboard, glass and plastics into separate waste streams in our homes and put our various colour-coded bins out for collection on the appointed days.
Yet the amount of packaging waste sent to landfill each year is increasing. Figures released by DEFRA in February reveal recycling levels increased from 64.1% in 2014 to 71.4% in 2016 but the amount of recyclable packaging waste sent to landfill is now 15.7% higher than it was in 2013. That’s an extra 446,000 tonnes!
There has been much media focus on single-use plastic, with images of the impact of plastic waste on our oceans and wildlife circulating on the internet. However, paper and cardboard still account for the highest proportion of packaging waste, totalling around 4.7 million tonnes each year in the UK. More needs to be done to ensure these materials are recyclable and recycled. It’s a twofold challenge. Firstly, brands and retailers need to ensure their packaging can be recycled, which seems like a reasonable enough goal, particularly when discussing the issue in the context of paper and cardboard substrates. However, brands do not achieve standout on shelf by packaging products in plain cardboard packaging and when we start adding inks, foils and mixed materials into the equation, the picture becomes much more complex.
Secondly, consumers are often on board with the idea of recycling and committed to sorting their waste but may not be fully-aware of what’s recyclable and what’s not. Hence some of the waste they sort for recycling may end up in landfill anyway, rejected at the recycling plant owing to the presence of unrecyclable inks on the substrate or foils.
Education has an important role to play. Brands and retailers, supported by their packaging specialists, need to make informed decisions about the best ways to improve the recyclability of tpacks without losing the creative edge of a design. This includes a joined-up approach to environmental issues and sustainability from strategy and concept, including the lifecycle capabilities of all materials and processes, not just the core substrate material. Consumers need to be more aware of the recyclability of packaging materials to help them make more informed choices. For example, they may select premium, organic biscuits in a black card, foil-blocked box as an environmentally-responsible treat without realising both the ink and foils used negate the recyclability credentials of the card. Similarly, they may choose premium cuts of sustainably farmed meat on black trays, yet the white tray used to package less expensive cuts is less likely to end up in landfill.
Building recyclability into packaging strategies is not only part of environmental best practice for all FMCG-related business, it is also an opportunity to differentiate a brand. There are lots of innovative, eco-friendly packaging technologies out there, from UV curing and electron beam (EB) methods for rapid curing of solvent-free inks, to latest generation biodegradable inks. One biodegradable ink developed in India uses a solvent based on vegetable oil and a proprietary natural resin, which enables simplification of the process needed to separate ink from paper to obtain clean pulp, resulting in more cost-effective, less energy-intensive paper recycling. As technologies like this develop, readily available and affordable, environmentally responsible packaging can be financially viable and deliver uncompromising levels of quality.