From making products smaller to investing in flexible packets that easily separate for recycling, here are five sustainable packaging strategies
1. Small is big
It’s not just Maltesers and Mars bars that are getting smaller these days. Glance around your local chemist and you may notice deodorant and hairspray cans getting the shrinking treatment too.
In 2013, Unilever launched “compressed” cans for brands including Sure, Dove and Vaseline – the aluminium containers have half the gas and a quarter less metal. They are now used in the world’s largest spray deodorant markets, saving more than 1,500 tonnes of aluminium to date – enough to make a million bicycles.
A few years later, British firm Boots and Natura Cosméticos in Brazil launched their own compressed cans. “In 2015, we made the decision to move deodorants to a compressed aerosol, which would potentially reduce the carbon footprint by 25% per can and also provide our customers with a more travel-friendly, longer-lasting aerosol,” says a Boots UK spokesperson. There’s still “education” needed, she adds, to ensure consumers understand that the same amount of product is inside.
Meanwhile, packaging manufacturer Ardagh Group say it has produced “the world’s lightest three-piece steel aerosol container” for a range of hairspray products for consumer goods and chemicals company Henkel. It has reduced the thickness of Drei Wetter Taft hairspray cans, resulting in a saving of over 15% of the material and water used in the production phase.
2. Think outside the box, then reuse it
Packaging in the supply chain, such as pallets and boxes used to deliver goods, is less visible to consumers but has a huge impact on a company’s environmental footprint. Alfredo Morales, regional head of Latin American beauty care retail for Henkel, says his team redesigned all kinds of processes in the beauty care production plant in Bogota, Colombia. Last year, 177 tonnes of cardboard boxes from deliveries of aluminium tubes, plastic bottles and folding boxes for their Schwarzkopf brand were reused, according to Morales.
“It starts with thinking out of the box,” he says. “You can save costs to the supplier and also the company, while at the same time thinking of protecting the environment and social responsibility.” The business asked suppliers to use sturdier corrugated boxes, set up quality-checking and reused each box 15-20 times. “We saved the equivalent of 3,300 trees and reduced 640 tonnes of CO2 emissions,” adds Morales.
Meanwhile, Dutch reusable packaging firm Schoeller Allibert makes a ventilated reusable plastic crate for transporting fruit and vegetables – the Maxinest [pdf]. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation [pdf] cites it as a good example of packaging innovation in the supply chain, because a Maxinest crate’s carbon footprint is about two thirds smaller than that of a standard size cardboard box.
3. Au naturel
Bio-based packaging is breaking down industry norms too.
Cosmetics chain Lush once used popcorn in its packaging for home deliveries, and now has compostable kernels made of vegetable starch and potato. Giles Verdon, head of Lush earth care, says that, so far this year, it has used almost 30,000kg of Ecoflo kernels; it also uses NatureFlex compostable and biodegradable films for wrapping products.
“We’ve just launched banana bars made from surplus bananas,’ she says. “We’re quite delayed, though, entirely because of compostable packaging. Because they’re such new materials and there is no blueprint, we’re the guinea pigs. There are no real alternatives if things go wrong (which they do), so there is a long waiting time between trials.” She adds, though, that the compostable packs cost just 1p more than conventional plastics per unit.
4. ‘Debond on command’
Flexible packaging – products such as pet food pouches and crisp packets – is frequently made from a combination of materials, adhesives and coatings. But these combinations – for example, in many hot drink cups – are often difficult to recycle.
A consortium of 38 European companies (CEFLEX) has come together to improve sustainability around flexible packaging.
Henkel’s market development manager Alexander Bockisch, who is working on the collaborative project, explains that you need many different qualities to achieve packaging performance, for example, “that protects from sunlight, oxygen and moisture, and can extend shelf life. Pet food, for instance, needs packaging to withstand sterilisation in an oven for 45 to 60 minutes at 131C.”
Henkel Adhesive Technologies is working on creating adhesives that will “debond on command”, so materials can be separated for recycling; developing plastics with compatible layers; and finding alternative coatings, to avoid using two incompatible plastics. “With CEFLEX, we want to further enhance the performance of flexible packaging in the circular economy,” he says.
5. What’s the story?
With the idea that nothing is waste, and with consumers often more likely to support something with a story behind it, a plethora of campaigns have emerged. From shampoo bottles manufactured with ocean plastic to outdoor gyms made from used cans, TerraCycle is one of the major proponents of “storifying”. Its campaigns often also have a social benefit, the gym in London’s Olympic Park being a case in point.
Dell, meanwhile, uses computer packaging made from materials such as bamboo and ocean plastics. Louise Koch, corporate sustainability lead for Dell EMEA, says the company uses packaging trays made from a blend of 25% recycled ocean plastics and other recycled plastics, with a view to collecting more than 7,000kg of discarded waste from waterways and beaches. Connecting sustainable materials with a strong narrative is good for consumer engagement and the bottom line, she says: “Using recycled ‘ocean plastics’ in packaging [meant] Dell was able to save on costs over prior packaging materials, even in the pilot phase.”
Like TerraCycle, Plastic Bank also adds a social element. People in some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Haiti, can collect plastic waste and turn it into “currency” – exchanging it for cash or services such as mobile phone vouchers. The material then goes on to be recycled.
Conversations around making packaging more sustainable have often centred around the worst offenders, such as single-use coffee cups or water bottles. But there are many strategies companies can employ to not only help engage hearts and minds, but also improve sustainability throughout the supply chain.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Lead Image: A strong narrative – such as having a product partly made from recovered ocean plastics – is good for consumer engagement. Photograph: Larry Washburn/Getty Images/fStop
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