Everyone should be alert to the dangers of simplistic reliance on headline metrics, argues Sanjay Patel, founding partner of the Packaging Collective.
Packaging is everywhere; on store shelves, in our homes, encasing our favourite products, on the streets, on the beaches, on the front pages, in the seas, in the animals and even in us. Through its unprecedented success is in protecting, preserving and presenting our products it has become a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives.
Without packaging, we couldn’t have travelled to every corner of the globe, or even to the moon. Packaging has become one of the key enablers to the societal, environmental and economic prosperity that so many of us enjoy today. Yet recent media coverage has resulted in plastic becoming almost universally vilified. Why has this happened given all the wonderful things plastics have enabled?
The answer is simple. There is a lack of understanding in the value of packaging and even the environment, due to negative media coverage. Inevitably, the general population only has the information it is presented with through the media. We only see the negative unintended consequences of plastics that are shown on our screens. The truth is that packaging, whatever its design, does not throw itself to the ground and become litter to then be washed down storm drains and in to the sea, no matter what the media may say.
We must therefore as an industry tell the other side of the story, to help consumers understand the true value and impact of packaging and there are a number of channels to explore to thoroughly unpack this complicated issue.
Life Cycle Analysis is one such channel and is highly-effective in clearly quantifying the total environmental impact of a packaging solutions, although complex when done correctly. Involving nine overall metrics, including fossil fuel consumption and heavy metal usage, it is in some ways comparable to the safety test performed on a car. 130 small individual tests are carried out to form the standard vehicle safety test in the UK, ensuring that the car is roadworthy. These range from the obvious such as a brake light to far less visible but no less important issues. Passing one test alone does not prove the car is roadworthy and similarly, proving a piece of packaging is efficient in just one area of an LCA, does not make for an environmentally friendly product.
Given the complexity of a full LCA, only one area has been largely picked up in general communication and media coverage – carbon dioxide emissions. This may be because it is easily understood by the general public, yet the heavy focus on CO2 means that even wider greenhouse gas emissions are being ignored.
Methane, in particular, presents a huge threat to the environment, with the negative impact on global warming a staggering fourteen times greater than that of CO2. The sudden rise in compostable packaging, as a knee-jerk reaction to the vilification of plastics, could in fact result in a huge rise in methane as it is a significant by-product of composting.
Though collected methane can be used as fuel, the reality is that companies are encouraging consumers to compost these new substrates at home, where there is no way to collect the resulting methane emissions. To help put this in perspective, in the UK if you replaced 20 per cent of the volume used in PET containers, you would also need to collect 3.5 million tonnes of organic matter to act as a catalyst in starting the breakdown of that compostable packaging.
It is clear that there is no silver bullet and far more analysis needs to be carried out across packaging substrates which each present their own environmental issues when assessed with a true LCA. We must, therefore, play our part in balancing the benefits against eco-designs and reduction of packaging where possible. And we must all be accountable and take responsibility for reducing, reusing, recovering and recycling packaging, whatever our part in the supply chain, from producer to consumer.