What are the potholes in the road to sustainability?

Sustainability is a word that people like to use. So much so that it’s become an integral part of many a corporate marketing campaign. Retailers claim to support sustainable farming practices. Manufacturers claim to source products sustainably and consumers are lulled into thinking that’s where the responsibility ends, as long as they support the organisations that make those claims, then they’re doing their bit for the planet. ac

Unfortunately, statistics say otherwise. In 2019, global consumption of resources exceeded 100 billion tonnes per year. Even more alarming is that researchers predict resource use will double by 2050. This would suggest, as some scientists claim, that sustainability is a myth, and that we have already reached the point of no return. Even at current usage levels, there is no longer such a thing as sustainable resourcing.  Not when it comes to virgin materials.

However, there is an enormous opportunity to repurpose and recycle materials already in the economy in a way that could revive the sustainability dream. Materials that most people consider waste are most likely to become the resources of the future, if we can navigate our way around the potholes that are hindering the transition to a circular economy.

What consumers want

Retailers claim that they are feeling the pressure from customers to offer more sustainable packaging options. Public environmental awareness is growing and people are starting to question why they need to buy vegetables, cereals and all sorts of products sealed in plastic packaging, when all they really want is enough for one meal. Some retailers are trialling packaging free zones for fresh produce and these seem to be well received, but what about other packaging? That of household products and non-perishable food items. There are many independent shops selling produce and consumables without packaging, so it’s certainly easier than ever to make the change.

Research conducted by Tetra Pak highlight’s three consumer concerns. Does it contain less plastic? Does the packaging come from a renewable resource? Finally, is it a low carbon source? These findings indicate that consumers are well informed, and in some cases willing to pay a little more for environmentally friendly products.

Unfortunately, the economic reality for most households is that they simply can’t afford them, so they will go for the cheaper less sustainable options, even if they don’t want to. This highlights an important factor with regards to creating sustainable packaging. If wider adoption is to be achieved, it needs to be sustainable and affordable. In other words, sustainable packaging cannot be a premium product, it needs to become the mainstream approach to packaging of all products.

What retailers want

Retailers operate on two key drivers, being able to supply what customers want and being able to sell stock profitably.  Wastage and spoilage accounts for a major expense, which is why retailers are hesitant to adopt packaging alternatives if it is going to mean that the shelf life of products is reduced. More expensive packaging is also going to affect their margins, and customers may think twice about buying those products, even if they are more environmentally friendly.

One way around this is for businesses in a particular area to collectively support more sustainable packaging alternatives as this has the potential to attract more customers. In North London they are introducing low plastic zones , where retailers are committed to drastically reducing the amount of plastic packaging used by consumers as well as using compostable and recyclable alternatives. It is hoped that initiatives like this will help change consumer behaviour.

What recyclers want

One of the biggest challenges recyclers face is getting recyclable packaging collected. It’s estimated that at this stage less than half of the plastic that can be recycled is actually remaining in the system to be recycled. Each council and area has different methods for collections and focusses on one type of recycling over another according to the facilities available in the area. The result of this is that a lot of packaging is sent to landfill that could and should be recycled. Creating more effective collection methods needs to be a priority, but implementing this is proving to be challenging.

Scotland is leading the way in introducing deposit return schemes in an attempt to increase the recovery rates of recycled materials. In terms of plastic and glass bottles this is proving to be very effective, but what about other recycled materials?

The challenges that the industry faces are not going to be solved in a day, they are too big and too complex. Being able to satisfy what everyone wants while still trying to achieve a sustainable packaging solution is going to require a lot of ingenuity and collaboration. What role do you see yourself playing in this?