Recyclability has only been a focus in packaging for a relatively short time. In general, packaging companies are on the ball and well prepared, but there is no room for complacency, as Ms Cheng explains.

“Recyclability in packaging has come to the fore thanks to the Verpackungsgesetz and in particular paragraph 21, which encourages manufacturers to use packaging materials that consist (partially) of recycled materials or a high percentage of materials that can be recycled. The public’s focus is currently on plastic and ocean littering, but all materials and processes are being questioned with regards to their sustainability, and recyclability is a key criterium for a circular economy. Political will, consumer desires and demands from brands and retail will mean that packaging manufacturers won’t be able to ‘afford’ insufficiently recyclable products from an image point of view but also from an economic point of view.”

Misunderstandings about packaging are commonplace, as she points out.

 “One of the things that come up repeatedly is the perception that packaging equals rubbish. Of course that is not the case, it is a valuable secondary raw material if it is disposed of correctly. I often emphasise that packaging does not have any use on its own, but only works in combination with the product it packages, it has a job to do that often isn’t seen by consumers.”

A nuanced view

At the moment the overall sustainability debate centres firmly around climate protection.

“Product damage resulting in food waste can cause harm to our climate, and here, packaging has an important role to play. But on the other hand, we cannot just sit back and continue as we have done. Looking at changing demographics, and the fact that developing countries will want to have similar lifestyles to the ones the West enjoys now, at some point rethinking how and what we consume will become inevitable,” Ms Cheng says.

She warns against quick fix solutions such as compostable plastics.

“At least here in Germany, solutions such as compostable plastics aren’t a panacea. The EN 13432 standard stipulates that there must be a ‘sufficient level of disintegration after 12 weeks in industrial or semi-industrial composting conditions’. For German composting companies, this period is too long for economic reasons. They consider biodegradable plastics as impurities in the compost and reject their disposal via the compostable waste bins.”

‘Plastic free’

In recent months, individuals and supermarkets have declared their environmental credentials by introducing ‘plastic free aisles’ or entire shops that don’t use plastic. We asked Kim Cheng what her opinion is on this.

“The packaging that is visible to the consumer only tells half the story. Even if food is not packaged in the actual shop, it still needs packaging across the supply chain – for example, how did those unpacked nuts get into the trays in the shop in the first place? There a danger of green washing and more food waste. On the other hand, these initiatives increase consumer awareness and makes people think about packaging and about their purchasing choices, so that is a positive thing.”

In conclusion, we asked Ms Cheng about a packaging solution that particularly impressed her in the last year.

“There are a wide range of exciting packaging solutions out there, many of which dvi has awarded with our Packaging Awards. One example that stood out for me is Bio-Lutions. The company develops fibre packaging using regional agricultural waste, made from banana stems, tomato plants, pineapple shrubs, or other plant leftovers which are often just burnt. The packaging is manufactured locally – addressing the issues of sustainable packaging material, reducing waste and long transport routes.