We all have a part to play in achieving the best levels of sustainability in packaging. And, as Waddington Europe’s product sustainability & compliance manager, Judit Guerra-Falcon, argues, collaboration up and down the entire supply chain is key.

Judit Guerra-Falcon joined Waddington Europe from Berry Global late last year

The challenge of dealing with plastic waste is now an environmental must. Consumers are demanding action, but the solutions presented by public infrastructure and many businesses have not kept pace with the rise in sustainability expectations.

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As a result of this rise in consumer demand for sustainable products, companies such as Waddington Europe, part of the US-based corporation, Novolex, have stepped up by designing more readily recyclable plastic packaging that contributes to the circular economy. Of course, circularity must also take into account how we handle products after their use.

The pandemic has led to an increased reliance on e-commerce and delivery services. In the UK, households produced 20% more waste in 2020 than in 2019. This has put even greater pressure on a recycling infrastructure that was already insufficient.

With the rise in packaging usage, consumers are much more aware of the need for environmental action – according to a recent survey, the majority of consumers (69%) believe supermarkets and retailers should play a sizable role in reducing plastic waste. This expectation has led to ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ (EPR) programmes along with taxes on packaging similar to the UK’s ‘Plastic Packaging Tax’ and the EU’s ‘Single-Use Plastics Directive’ (SUPD). 

In 2020, around 29m tons of post-consumer plastic waste was collected across the EU member countries along with Norway, Switzerland and the UK. However, 23% was still sent to landfill, despite the demand for – and use of – post-consumer waste. To improve end-of-life management, we need much stronger collaboration between the public and private sectors to build a circular infrastructure for true sustainability.

Collaborate to meet both consumer and regulatory needs

The volatility of consumer markets during COVID demonstrated the power and value of rapidly adaptive supply chains in meeting large societal challenges. Moving forward, leveraging this spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership can help us address consumer environmental concerns while also adapting to these new governmental regulations.

The pandemic also resulted in rapid fluctuations of consumer trends in the food industry, accelerating the rise in demand for food-to-go containers and tamper-evident packaging. This business and consumer shift led to an increased use of plastic packaging and a larger awareness of its end-of-life aspects.

As a developer, manufacturer and supplier of food service and other packaging products, Waddington Europe knew that its staff needed to create a structure to address sustainable packaging demands. The company utilised the launch of Novolex’s ‘Rapid Innovation Teams’ – a project designed to address these rapid changes – to encourage cross-divisional collaboration. Through this initiative, our teams learned best practices from experts across departments to make existing manufacturing lines more sustainable, introduce new materials and be able to offer these more sustainable solutions to customers. 

As a result, Waddington has seen a significant increase in internal collaboration across Novolex teams in recent months.

This success underlined that for sustainable innovation to permeate the broader industry, manufacturers, suppliers and customers up and down the supply chain must develop collaborative systems. All must hold each other accountable to allow teams to adapt to new government regulations, societal needs and future headwinds.

Adapting supply chains to boost sustainable innovation

Beyond investing in collaboration, brands must work with customers to overhaul their operations and integrate sustainable options into supply chains.

Sustainable supply chains require a holistic understanding of each step in the process – from the sourcing and reuse of materials, to research & development, to end-of-life management. In addition to introducing more sustainable products, manufacturers must take on a consultant-like role for customers, helping to navigate the ever-changing regulatory environment and providing counsel on both how to make products more sustainable and improve recycling systems.

With the development of these new roles, we’ve been able to understand what has worked for our customers – and which partners we need to bring in for support. One example is the recent launch of soft-fruit punnets that are made from 100% recycled PET (rPET) with 30% less plastic and are fully recyclable. This recycled material blend was an important priority for our customers, but we also know there is often a lack of recycled materials available for use. That’s why Waddington Europe partnered with Shabra, Ireland’s leading recycler and reprocessor of post-consumer waste, to purchase recycled rPET material. This partnership resulted in the expansion of the ‘Eco Blend’ sustainable products line and creation of a system of localised closed-loop recycling.

We have also fostered a new partnership with one of our suppliers to incorporate ‘Prevented Ocean Plastic’, a certified recycled plastic that is collected from coastal areas. This type of plastic meets global regulatory health & safety standards and is traceable back to the source, thereby helping to advance the circular economy, protect the environment and continue the use of recycled plastics in the supply chain.

Investment in sustainable supply chains and collaboration with partners is crucial to provide customers with the choices they have come to expect, as well as to meet legal requirements in the longer term.

Listen to consumers

While the food industry will change with new consumer demands and ongoing regulatory reforms, we do know one thing: The consumer is leading the way. Businesses must continue to put the consumer’s demands first and develop long-term plans to stay ahead of – and react swiftly to – environmental trends and regulations.

From ethical material sourcing to product design and end-of-life solutions, the ingredients that go into packaging are just as crucial as the food they carry. To fully support the adoption of sustainable packaging, suppliers need the support and collaboration of government officials, customers and consumers.

We are all partners as we strive to develop products and systems that support consumers and the environment alike.