Earlier this year, Pro Carton, the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard manufacturers, asked more than 5,000 consumers about their attitudes towards the environment and packaging perceptions. Answers showed that that two in three European consumers from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy (63%) intend to create a more sustainable lifestyle, and more than half (58%) place recycling at the top of the list to reduce impacts of climate change.


Earlier this year, Pro Carton, the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard manufacturers, asked more than 5,000 consumers about their attitudes towards the environment and packaging perceptions. It showed that two in three European consumers from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy (63%) intend to create a more sustainable lifestyle, and more than half (58%) place recycling at the top of the list to reduce impacts of climate change.

We spoke to Winfried Muehling, Pro Carton’s director of marketing and communications, to dig deeper into the survey results.

PE: How have consumer opinions around packaging and sustainability shifted in recent years – how do the figures compare to studies from previous years?

WM: Our consumer research, in which we surveyed 5,000 consumers across the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, provides some fascinating Pan-European insights around packaging and sustainability. It enables us to identify key trends that are critical to understanding consumer attitudes towards packaging, and their purchasing preferences.

For example, the importance of recycling increased amongst survey respondents – rising from second position in the same Pro Carton 2019 study to first place in 2022, while 58% of European consumers are recycling more than 12 months ago, and more than half (54%) say the environmental impact of a product’s packaging has become more important in the last 12 months.

What’s more, when faced with a choice of packaging, consumers prefer cartons. The preference rating for the economically and ecologically balanced packaging medium moved from 81% in 2019 to 86% in the 2022 study.

Overall, we have noticed a clear preference from consumers towards environmentally friendly, recyclable packaging materials. Brands are recognising that above all else, consumers want to do their bit for the environment, and are relying on them to provide sustainable packaging solutions.

PE: It looks like making sustainable choices is becoming more important to consumers – why do you think that is, and do you think this trend will continue or is it likely to be hampered by the increasing cost of living and other challenges the world faces today?

WM: Our research speaks to this trend. On average, 64% of Europeans surveyed declared that a sustainable lifestyle had become more important to them and their family over the last two years. This is despite four of the five European countries stating that the cost-of-living crisis was the biggest issue facing us today, with an average of 86% becoming more concerned about this issue.

Our research also highlights the growing alarm amongst consumers towards the climate emergency, which is likely to affect their purchasing habits. We expect consumers to increasingly focus on the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions. Packaging is the first product contact for consumers and therefore plays a major role in creating consumer loyalty.

PE: Have you observed any discrepancy between what people are saying in surveys and their actual purchasing decisions?

Surveys do give us a reliable indication of consumer decision-making and attitudes; the value of surveys especially increases with repeated surveys over time. However, it is a fact that consumers’ final purchasing decisions at the point of sale won’t always reflect survey data due to many variable factors. Such factors include product availability, price and convenience. We see an upward trajectory of preference towards recycling packaging solutions both in surveys and purchasing data. Consumers are becoming more aware of environmental impacts and therefore deliberately choose packaging sourced from renewable raw materials which is also recyclable.

PE: How important is packaging to consumers when making a purchasing decision?

WM: The short answer is very. Packaging has become a major factor for decision making at point of sales and for securing brand loyalty and repeated sales.

In Spain, in the last 12 months, 55% chose a brand specifically for the packaging used, and in France, 51% claimed to have switched brands or products because of concerns about the packaging used. Meanwhile, 43% of German consumers purchased more products in environmentally friendly packaging, while nearly half (48.3%) of European consumers purchased less products packed in plastic. When considering the challenging economic circumstances in which they find themselves, they are remarkable statistics. In every sense, increasingly a product’s packaging is a strong consideration for consumers, and a lot of this comes down to how well it scores for sustainability.

PE: Recyclability has moved up to be the most important factor in packaging sustainability for consumers – why do you think that is?

WM: The importance of packaging recyclability was evident across the board, with ‘easy to recycle’ highlighted as the most important packaging feature, cited by 85% of survey respondents. Packaging made from natural, renewable materials also ranked highly, with 81% of respondents balancing this with the role of packaging to protect the product (81%).

The importance consumers place on recycling likely comes down to their awareness of its role in creating a circular economy. Recycling products slows down the use of natural resources, reduces disruption to the environment and helps to limit biodiversity loss, by keeping valuable raw materials in production cycles for longer.

The biggest incentive for consumers to recycle is a credible story and visibility of recycled products on the shelves. The best examples here are glass and PET bottles and of course paper and cartonboard products. Latter ones have the highest level of trust amongst consumers in Europe.

PE: There is still some confusion about recycling and recyclability – is there anything the industry and governing bodies could do to improve communication on this?

A key area to address is on-pack labelling. Consumers want to do the right thing but are stymied by confusing and inconsistent labelling on packaging. Nearly all packages show the recycling symbol today. Even though consumers doubt that products will be recycled. As a result, many don’t know what can be recycled at home, what needs to be taken to recycling centres or wider collection points. This has created the phenomenon termed as ‘wishcycling’ - the practice of putting something in the recycling bin in the hope that it will be recycled, even though it might be unsuitable.

The value that consumers place on recycling is a cause for celebration. The industry needs to prove now, that new packaging is made from recycled packaging material. Legislators do good to point out trustful circular systems like paper and cartonboard and to mandate laws that enable consumers to act on their good intentions, through the use of consistent and non misleading on-pack labelling.

PE: What work does Pro Carton do to boost recycling and recyclability, and also with regards to sourcing raw materials sustainably?

WM: Pro Carton, the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard manufacturers, is a non-profit organisation representing over 40 cartonboard mills in 13 different European countries and North America, supplying more than 90% of Europe’s demand, as well as the carton converting industry across Europe.

One of our key objectives is to promote the benefits of cartons and cartonboard as a renewable, recyclable and competitive packaging material to brand owners, retailers, designers, the media and EU policymakers. One way we do this is to shine a light on the incredible work our industry is doing – driven by our members – to close the loop on the packaging circular economy.

For example, we revealed authoritative new research this March which proved that the European carton and cartonboard industry has succeeded in reducing its carbon footprint by 24% between 2018 and 2021. The study, titled The Carbon Footprint of Carton Packaging 2023, further revealed the newly measured European industry average carbon footprint of cartons is now at 249 kgCO2e cradle-to-grave and 148 kgCO2e cradle-to-gate per tonne of cartons, demonstrating unequivocally that carton packaging not only meets the demands of a bio-based and circular economy but has a key role to play in the transition to a low carbon economy. The results are testament to the steadfast commitment of our members to innovate and find ways of reducing the carbon footprint in everything they do.

Sustainable forest management is top of the agenda for all our members. Healthy forest growth is key to limiting negative impacts of climate change, and securing biodiversity and recreation areas for families in Europe.

As well as commission research and spotlighting our members’ activities, all year round we undertake activities to raise the profile of cartonboard to key stakeholders, including speaking at the industry’s biggest events, hosting our three European Awards, and running roundtables with industry heavyweights, such as with Packaging Europe.

PE: What future developments do you expect?

WM: We expect to see more applications for fibre-based packaging solutions across new categories. Our members are working on innovative technologies to shape the future of the industry, including, new cartonboard coatings to open the doors to new product categories and easier recycling.

From the consumer’s perspective we expect the current trends towards recyclable packaging and renewable raw materials to continue to develop, as they define packaging developments in the future. The best example we see here is the decarbonisation of laundry product packaging. We are seeing more and more brands – including private labels - moving to cartonboard-based solutions, that offer their consumers a sustainable environmentally conscious packaging alternative.

On the plastics side, we will see an increase in the use of mono materials, as well as the simplification of common complicated laminate structures. Also, we believe creating a credible and trustful collection and recycling system across the world will be key to making progress here. The collection of packaging needs to gain more focus in the flexible plastics packaging value chain.

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