The global movement to highlight the enduring environmental and potential health impacts of plastics has kick-started wide-ranging programmes to reduce use and improve recyclability of single-use plastics, and many companies are now exploring sustainably sourced and recyclable materials in a bid to consider the end-of-life impact of their packaging.

Sam Jones, Customer Sustainability Manager at DS Smith explores how thoughtful design can streamline the supply chain and reduce overall carbon emissions. and what should businesses bear in mind when they review their packaging choices with regards to sustainability?

Problematic lifestyles

We live increasingly fast and busy lifestyles with a focus on convenience and disposability and we have little time to buy in bulk, cook from raw ingredients, reuse or recycle. Items such as drinking straws, water bottles, coffee cups, lids and stirrers, cutlery and takeaway packaging are particularly problematic from an environmental perspective.

All is not lost though - governments, retailers and brands are now taking action. The EU has recently developed a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy and some supermarkets are pledging to go entirely plastic-free or have plastic-free aisles.  In February, Europe’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle was launched by Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza. The company hopes to roll out similar aisles in all of its 74 branches by the end of the year. The plastic-free aisle offers more than 700 products with plastic-free packaging, including meat, rice, sauces, dairy, chocolate, cereals, yogurt, snacks, fresh fruit and vegetables.

The challenge of going plastic-free

While there are some straightforward moves retailers can make such as changing plastic egg cartons to pressed fibre cartons and charging for plastic bags, there are some areas that will require much more consideration. Plastics have a key part to play in transporting produce and keeping it fresh for longer and when this plastic is also returnable and recyclable, the case for using plastics is compelling.

For example, fruit and vegetable producers fill plastic trays with produce which then travels through the supply chain, is placed in fixture in store, emptied, cleaned and goes back to the packer for re-use. The plastic trays offer excellent supply chain efficiencies, and ensure the produce is protected. The trays have a long life span, being used time and time again.

In this example, the use of the plastic is arguably the most sustainable option. However, in general there is much more scope for companies to pioneer better design of plastics, supporting reuse, easier recycling and also encouraging the use of recycled plastics where possible. Stronger incentives to simplify, collect, sort and recycle all plastics would undoubtedly lead to a more sustainable future.

The proliferation of plastics over the last sixty years has in part been driven by its practicality. Plastics are light, strong, impermeable and cheap. They can be flexible or rigid, inflated and extruded. Innovations in fibre packaging are increasingly offering alternatives.

Easy alternatives

One area ripe for change is in on-shelf packaging. Some retailers use clear plastic trays that hold packs neatly and present them face-on to customers. The clear plastic makes the product visible and enables strong marketing of the product, however there are plastic-free alternatives available. DS Smith offers retail ready packaging (RRP) made from recyclable corrugated cardboard which has small upstands in the base and holds the product vertically. At 81 per cent, paper and board packaging is the most widely recycled material in Europe. It is designed with the whole supply chain in mind and offers cube efficiencies, meaning it fits perfectly within pallets whereas plastic trays often contribute to space loss of 20 per cent on average.

Another innovation is Bag-in-Box flexible packaging solutions. Bag-in-Box packaging offers an environmentally friendly alternative to packaging solutions for transporting liquids. Not only are all the components recyclable, Bag-in-Box produces five times less waste than rigid container alternatives. It is perfect for detergents, wine, juices and other fluids. Some are considering whether shaped bottles could be eliminated entirely as they are not cube efficient in the supply chain. Instead Bag-in-Box would be the more sustainable alternative.

Outside of the retail sector, European manufacturers are also considering their part in the plastics revolution. Many currently use plastic to transport their products when corrugated board could work just as well. For example, Finnish company Puustelli Group Oy manufactures high quality kitchen furniture and supplies customers in Finland, Sweden, the Baltic States and Russia. It recently worked with DS Smith to change from plastic to recyclable and environmentally friendly corrugated board packaging. The end result generated significant savings in terms of ordering and warehousing and an increase in distribution speed. It will reduce plastic packaging disposal by 32,000kg, enjoy substantial cost savings through improved protection and strengthen its brand; consumers recognise corrugated board to be recyclable and associate this with a sustainable, responsible brand.

As the environmental and potential health impacts become more apparent, regulatory and consumer attitudes towards excessive plastic packaging are changing rapidly. Many companies are now reviewing their approach to single-use plastics. In many cases, plastic packaging solutions may still be the most sustainable option. Regardless of material, we should focus on moving towards a more circular economy, where we minimise the use of raw materials, reduce waste, reuse and recycle.

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