A study exploring the importance of sustainability in packaging has revealed some worrying statistics that demonstrate the potentially misguided view held by a number of brand owners and retailers across Europe, potentially putting true packaging sustainability at risk.

While an encouraging 96% of respondents believed sustainable packaging was important, and one third felt it was well embedded in their business culture, the primary strategy of 70% of the brands and retailers interviewed was to focus on reducing packaging weight and volume, rather than assessing the materials that could provide greater environmental and sustainability improvements.

Speaking about the findings, Tony Hitchin, General Manager, Pro Carton, said: “With the spotlight now on brands moving away from newly-manufactured or virgin plastics, and the EU calling for every piece of packaging produced by 2030 to be recyclable, the packaging debate has been dominated by the means in which we recycle and reuse packaging, rather than which materials we use in the first place.

“While it is clearly positive thing that brands and retailers rank recyclability so high, the focus appears to be on end of life rather than whole life cycle when assessing the sustainability of packaging formats. By assessing the whole life cycle, brands can improve the environmental performance of packaging – from ‘cradle to grave’ or even “cradle to cradle” which is the principle of the circular economy.

The study also explored the factors brands and retailers consider the most important to packaging design with respondents largely in agreement that protecting the product was the most important factor, followed by recyclability and technical performance. However, the use of sustainable (renewable materials) was the lowest ranked factor, with less than 30% of respondents considering this a critical factor for packaging design. Respondents in Germany were the only country to rank using renewable materials as the most important criterion, suggesting further education on the materials available, and the applications most suited to them, is still required throughout the rest of Europe.

The report did reveal an increased awareness for the materials that are both renewable and biodegradable, such as cartonboard. Folding cartons were rated as the most versatile form of primary packaging, easily adapting to more diverse and complex distribution channels. Benefits noted by respondents included the ability of carton to adapt to different product types, applications, shapes and sizes. Easier transportation, lower weight and lower transport costs were also important.

78% of all respondents agreed that cartonboard was the ‘most sustainable form of packaging’ with brands and retailers in agreeance that it was ‘more ecological at its end of life’, could be recycled, and comes from a ‘renewable product, such as sustainable forests’.

“We’re delighted to note that the strengths of cartonboard are now widely appreciated,” added Hitchin. “While it does raise some concern that 22% of respondents apparently believe that plastics are more sustainable than a natural, renewable resource, we hope that as awareness and consumer demand for sustainable packaging continues, cartonboard will become both the brand owners’ and retailers’ first choice as a packaging medium.”

The Importance of Sustainability in Packaging, conducted by Smithers Pira and published by Pro Carton, is available to download via the Pro Carton website. 

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