Sustainable equations

15 September 2004 (Last Updated September 15th, 2004 18:30)

In today's market, the eco-aware consumer cannot avoid being bombarded with information about sustainable development. Ian Dent, CEO of the Packaging Federation, looks at how businesses should balance environmental concerns with financial implications.

The impact of sustainable development (SD) on environmental issues, such as climate change, water conservation and waste, has become a matter of importance for governments, producers and consumers.

Unfortunately, this sends the wrong signals to many businesses, especially to small companies. They interpret the drive for SD as a doom-laden scenario, which will bring with it increased costs and more regulation.

However, SD is not just about environmental concerns. It embraces three factors - economics, society and the environment - all working in harmony to create a balanced approach to a profitable business. Instead of worrying about repercussions, small businesses need to reassess how they measure their performance against these three factors.

Most packaging companies embrace the economic factors (as expected) but tend to treat the environmental factors as difficult regulatory necessities that must be obeyed. Instead, packagers need to start measuring environmental factors alongside their financial parameters, and assess them in a positive, rather than a negative, light.

The key to balancing the environmental/ financial equation is the social factor. Companies could invest in staff incentives and awards schemes, open days for immediate neighbours and tree planting for conservation and carbon sequestration. However, a packaging product is usually judged by its wider social implications - such as convenience, cost, recycling and even 'openability'.

Sustainable production vs sustainable consumption

A new model has recently surfaced to tackle SD, offering resource efficiency, sustainable production and consumption indicators. This is particularly pertinent to packaging. Although packaging exists as a product in its own right, its function is the same as that of a service provider - to satisfy consumption.

Consumers usually judge packaging at the end of its primary function, and rarely as an integral part of a packed product's life cycle. Apart from the cost, all the efforts made to service a particular product tend to go unnoticed.

The identity of packaging has now become an issue, currently being addressed by a study on the resource efficiency of packaging in the supply chain for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG).

This study is being sponsored by Biffa as one of their last tranches of landfill tax funding, and is co-sponsored by the Packaging Federation, Valpak and Amcor Flexibles (with the research and analytical work being carried out by the University of Brighton and PIRA).

At the outset of the resource efficiency study it was recognised that tackling this subject in a generic way would be too complex. The results would be difficult for ordinary consumers and politicians to interpret, and they should be the prime audience.

So, the project team decided to use specific case studies, comprising of popular and easily recognisable packed products. They decided to include products that used (or had used) several packaging formats, so that the exercise would not become a simple material evaluation and substitution exercise.

After some debate with industry colleagues at workshops, the final selection came down to:

  • Soft drinks (including bottled water): This area has seen significant growth in terms of product offerings and uses every type of packaging material.
  • Ready meals: This modern innovation is closely tied to the revolution in home technology and cooking habits, triggered by demographic changes (more single-person households and career mothers).
  • Potatoes and potato products: These were chosen to reflect life-style changes and choices, given that the basic product is largely of domestic origin and can still be bought loose. (It was decided that the definition should not be extended to include crisps, as this would involve an additional processing stage and would be more representative of the snack market, which is a discrete market in its own right).
  • Cat food: Surprisingly, the UK has one of the largest cat populations in Europe, with cat owners now outstripping dog owners. More affluent owners, who might once have pampered their pets with home-cooked treats, now seek out a variety of special food packs in wet and dry formats.
  • Laundry detergents: This innovative sector has responded to changes in manufacturing technology (from solids to liquids to concentrates), washing machine technology and consumer washing habits by creating a greater variety of products and pack formats.

Life-style changes

The main reason for examination was to analyse how packaging had met the challenges from the product manufacturers. This was looked at in terms of primary material resource use and, where possible, included the impact on the total logistics supply chain.

Since it was also crucial that we should examine each case on a similar basis, it was decided that the resource efficiency measures would be based upon a single serve (functional unit): for example, a single unit dose of washing powder, or a single cat meal portion, using the manufacturer's own recommended single-serve portions where possible.

In deciding what to measure, it was clear that a full life-cycle analysis was not feasible, due to the parameters necessary to examine the 'use' phase: for example, the results for packed laundry detergent would be swamped by the impact of the washing cycle itself. The sensible option was to analyse the weight of packaging against that of the product carried, and the primary energy consumed in producing that weight of packaging.

To make the study viable, the equation had to be broken down into small, manageable elements so that it could be interpreted and understood by its prime audience of consumers and politicians. As a background to all the case studies, a timeline was drawn to high-light the various driving forces that led to product/pack change.

Key findings

Although the Biffa report is still in the process of completion, some results are already beginning to emerge. Between 1989 and 2002 the total consumption of soft drinks increased by more than 60 per cent, to 13 billion litres per annum, and the bottled water market has become one of the largest growth sectors.

The variety of packs has also grown exponentially, with fruit juices now offered in 20 different pack formats and water in 13. All of these formats were studied, and whilst overall consumption had increased, the packaging ratio had declined. In fact, the net benefit through resource efficiency of packaging equated to 20 per cent.

If this percentage had not been achieved, it would have increased levels of UK packaging waste by almost 400,000 tonnes - a real example of waste minimisation and sustainable production versus sustainable consumption. The net benefit of resource efficiency is often miscalculated, as it is confused with the more visible number of packed units on the market, not the product/pack ratio.

The degree of innovation and consumption in the laundry detergent market has changed significantly. The amount of packaging used is influenced by many factors, such as type of product (a concentrate uses less packaging per unit wash, but tablets use more), and the number of washes.

The increase in single unit households has increased the number of washing machines, number of washes and volume of packs. Nevertheless, the amount of packaging used has still shown a downward trend.

What is particularly interesting about the Biffa report is the importance of the functional unit chosen. European organisation AISE chose a different parameter for its voluntary Code of Practice and was duly criticised for not meeting its target.

Though the results of the Biffa report are, as yet, inconclusive, we can see that significant trends are already evolving. The packaging industry has made some adjustments to accommodate SD, but will soon be forced to address growing desire among politicians and consumers to ensure that the environment is properly considered in the production of future packaging formats.

The final Biffa report will be available from the Packaging Federation website (www.packagingfedn.co.uk).