Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Revolutionising packaging: Navigating towards a sustainable future

In the rapidly evolving packaging world, enhancements in food packaging persistently surface and bring revolution to the industry, which is shifting towards a more transparent, reliable, and socially responsible future.

A quick web search around any key headwinds that the packaging sector can expect in the coming years regularly throws up the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) and one man in particular: Jim Bligh, Corporate & Public Affairs Director.

The packaging landscape is expected to undergo significant changes driven by Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and similar policies. Clearer regulations are anticipated to spur innovation and investment in sustainable practices. Whilst Bligh envisions a future where supermarket shelves feature products made from different, more recyclable materials, reflecting shifts in consumer behaviour and manufacturing practices, a quick rummage around his current and rather busy in-tray shows challenges remain.

Whether it’s ensuring a consistent supply of recycled content or governmental focus on fee collection over system efficiency, Bligh believes the pending transformation of the entire packaging value chain isn’t just about materials—it’s about revolutionising the entire packaging ecosystem, from production to disposal.

“I think it’s accelerating,” Bligh told London Packaging Week. “I think with the changes in material science, the advances we’re making on different types of materials in all parts of the economy present huge opportunities. The biggest opportunities we’ve seen for decades in packaging! Having clarity on rules, more investment, direct financial incentives through EPR, and various other things will mean that we’re at the cusp of a new leap in how we package our products. I think we’ll see less plastic, and replacing plastic is a long-term challenge that no one has completely solved. So, watch that space, particularly in the material science world.”

Bligh, a recently appointed member of the London Packaging Week Innovation Awards 2024 Jury, sees vast opportunities emerging from advances in material science, anticipating a shift away from plastics towards more sustainable alternatives. However, uncertainties persist, particularly regarding implementing EPR and Deposit Return Schemes (DRS). Despite consultations starting seven years ago, progress has been slow, leaving industries unsure about the recyclability of innovative packaging materials.

“You’d expect that we’ll see quite rapid progress over the next two or three years,” said Bligh. “But what that will mean for the industry then is standard rules on recyclability in particular. So, when we’re innovating, creating new packaging, and creating new products, we’ll know whether they’ll be recyclable or not. One of the problems at the moment is that there’s a whole load of innovation going on, but, for example, if you’re making paper packs for your crisps, we don’t know when they’ll even be able to be recycled under the new systems that we’ll have in place in the coming years. We just need to get on with it and work with the government to build systems that work and attract the right investment to get that circular economy going.”

As the United Kingdom grapples with the pressing issue of improving its recycling rates, the conversation around EPR becomes ever more crucial. EPR schemes, which place the onus on producers to manage the lifecycle of their products, have seen remarkable success in various countries. However, the UK faces unique challenges in adapting these systems to its context. Key concerns include the current government’s focus on fee collection over system efficiency and the critical role of producer leadership in driving sustainable packaging innovations.

“I think EPR has worked really well overseas,” he added. “If you go to Canada or parts of the United States or Belgium, you see high-functioning systems that have pushed up their recycling rates. Our concern in the UK is that the government has done a lot of thinking about how to invoice businesses for the fees and not a lot of thinking about building a system that creates circularity. We are pretty confident that there’ll be a system that invoices us for £1.7 billion a year and that will happen in the next couple of years. The challenge for the next government after the election is going to be driving investment, attracting investment into new technologies, consolidating existing recycling infrastructure, encouraging and enabling packaging innovation, and spending that money wisely.

“It’s not good enough for us that we’ll pay extra money that ultimately pushes up food prices. It’s not good enough for us that we’ll spend all those extra billions, and nothing comes out of it at the other end. So, the challenge for us and the government is how to create an efficient system that creates that circularity. For us that involves taking the best of overseas schemes, which generally involve producer leadership, where producers are good at running EPR systems and that’s why we see double the UK’s recycling rates in places like Belgium. So, we want to inject a bit of producer leadership into the systems to make it happen. I think that will happen over the coming years, but the system that will be in place from next year will be more cash collection than waste collection and we need to shift it so there’s more waste collection going on and more recycling over the first five years of the scheme to make it work.

“The cost is borne by us and so it’s in our interest as producers that we make a system that really works and that we don’t just accept the status quo. In England, we’ve got a 44% recycling rate and that is not good enough when it comes to the cost that we’re about to start paying. Producers have an incentive to reduce the packaging they use, but also to build that system to get more recycled content into packaging in the future. And that means that we have a clear behavioural driver to make this work, so it’s critical that industry is at the heart of this.”

The landscape of packaging and recycling is poised for significant transformation, driven by the implementation of policies like EPR. By establishing clear regulations, EPR aims to foster an environment where producers are motivated to reduce plastic usage and overall packaging volume. This regulatory clarity is expected to spur innovation and attract investment capital, propelling the industry towards sustainable practices. According to Bligh, when new technologies are guided by well-defined frameworks, they generate substantial investment and momentum.

“When there are costs involved at the level that we’re going to see with EPR – well into the billions – the incentive is there to create new types of packaging that will work,” said Bligh. “I think having clarity in the rules will create the space for us to innovate and to develop those new products. It’s going to require a considerable amount of capital but if we get this right, then there’ll be investment capital coming in that will enable real innovation quite quickly, which is what we’ve seen in other places.”

Over the next decade, we can expect a noticeable shift in the packaging of supermarket products. While the contents may remain unchanged, the packaging materials will likely be different, more sustainable, and designed to be more easily recyclable.

“What we buy in the supermarket will look and feel different and be in different materials and hopefully then consumers will then recycle it in the right way as well,” he added. “There’s a big job of work for us all to do there to get people to think differently about the products they’re putting in their recycling bin. We need to make sure that we’re driving up those rates with the buy-in of citizens as well as the buy-in of manufacturers.

“From a food and drink perspective, how we make our products, how we grow them, how we ship them, and how we sell them is all changing, and how we package them is changing at the same pace. Every element of our food system is transforming, and you can really feel that when it comes to the packaging. You see it in the supermarkets, particularly where you walk around and it feels very different. I think we’ll see different materials, things like seaweed, coming into packaging and a lot more paper being used than plastic. I think people’s mindset is in the right place but it’s now about having the clarity of the rules and making sure that we got the right investment going in.”

The true measure of innovation lies in the satisfaction of its end users. In the packaging industry, this often means experimenting with various materials until finding a solution that works well for consumers and manufacturers alike. For large-scale producers, such as major crisp manufacturers, the demand for stable, reliable packaging is immense. The challenge is not just in developing sustainable options but also in securing a consistent supply of recycled content. According to Bligh, it’s crucial for producers to work with other stakeholders and for governments to help facilitate the development of a more robust market for recycled materials.

“There’s more to it, I think, than just being sustainable, but that’s an important driver,” he continued. “I think one of the problems that we face as producers is the supply of recycled content has not been consistent. There are only a couple of factories in Europe that produce, for example, chemically recycled plastic that you can use again as food-grade packaging. They do not produce anything like enough for the global demand that exists. They don’t produce enough for the European demand that exists. So, it’s hard to make the big changes you want to make with enough content to make it happen. What we need to do as producers is to challenge the other players in the ecosystem to create enough supply because there is really enough demand and that’s where I think the government can come in to try and co-facilitate the market.”

Bligh was keen to praise manufacturers and the packaging sector for their advancements, stressing the need for a circular economy and underscoring the importance of future generations by advocating for packaging that prioritises sustainable materials.

“It’s really exciting to be part of this panel and to see the innovations that are happening and to see everybody coming together to celebrate,” he said. “I think where the industry is at and how it’s transforming will make for a fantastic process. We’ve got some brilliant brands involved in the panel, some real deep experts who are leading the change and to be among them is a great opportunity for me and the FDF as well to help move us on as an industry and to get a lot more sustainable as we change in the next few years.”

As the packaging industry strides towards a more sustainable and environmentally conscious future, the journey ahead is both challenging and promising. But with leaders like Bligh advocating for innovation, collaboration, and regulatory clarity, there’s optimism for significant progress in the years to come.

The first London Packaging Week Innovation Awards winners will be announced on the second day of the show, September 12. Find out more about the awards at www.londonpackagingweek.com/innovation-awards

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