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Green packaging in Europe: the view from the U.K.

In the U.K., as elsewhere in Europe, an analytical, holistic approach to sustainable packaging has taken root.
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Related podcast: regarding food-grade recycling at CLR

In Europe, the issues surrounding greener packaging are as complex and diverse as the countries and landscape, but all were formalized—and have been sustained—under the European Commission’s 1985 Packaging Directive.

“Its [goal] was to improve the environment,” says Jane Bickerstaffe of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (www.incpen.org). Formed in 1974, INCPEN is a proactive organization that encompasses the entire packaged goods supply chain. It counts among its members Boots, Coca-Cola, Dow, Marks & Spencer, Nestlé, Rexam, and Sainsbury’s.

In 1992, the EC adopted Directive 94/62/EC, the Council Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste. It aims to harmonize national measures to reduce or prevent the impact of packaging and packaging waste on the environment. It contains provisions to prevent packaging waste, to reuse packaging, and to recover and recycle packaging waste. There are fines if countries do not meet targets.

Sense and sensibility

INCPEN’s diversity positions it well to collaboratively respond to trends and regulations.

“INCPEN understands packaging all the way through the supply chain, which is important because it’s the only way to understand what is sensible packaging and what isn’t,” says Bickerstaffe. The group’s efforts include research activities and education for consumers and retailers. “We’re also watching legislation and trying to influence legislation so it really does make a difference for the environment.”

More recently, the group responded to a number of newspapers’ anti-packaging campaigns that have misrepresented packaging’s role in the waste stream through a report, Packaging in perspective, published in August.

“Everyone has a love-hate relationship with packaging,” acknowledges Bickerstaffe. “People know they can’t get good-quality or undamaged goods or wholesome food without it, yet once they’ve emptied it, they think ‘Oh no, not all this packaging left.’ We’re sympathetic, but we need to explain what packaging is doing for society. Packagers’ stance should not be one of apology for packaging.”

Case in point: An ASDA Wal-Mart store eliminated the packaging from all of its fresh fruit and vegetables in two stores over a three-month period as a test to see what effect that had. “The in-store waste doubled, and so they went back to packaged,” Bickerstaffe relates.

Another prominent, proactive group working out of the U.K. is Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP, www.wrap.org.uk). Like INCPEN, WRAP takes a holistic approach to sustainability, though its UK-centric approach appears much broader in scope than INCPEN and goes beyond packaging.

One initiative WRAP launched is working with retailers on packaging reduction, which drew 30 signees, including major retailers, plus packagers such as HJ Heinz, Northern Foods, Müller Dairy U.K., Mars U.K., Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, Cadbury, and others. According to WRAP’s Viki Coppin, the goals include:

• Designing out packaging waste growth by 2008 (achieved: zero growth);

• Delivering absolute reductions in packaging waste by 2010; and

• Identifying ways to tackle the problem of food waste.

In one example, Boots pharmacies investigated the use of post-consumer recycled PET for bottles used for shampoo products. As part of a project funded by WRAP, Boots worked in partnership with London Remade and Closed Loop London to develop a scheme to collect plastics from the waste stream. These are reprocessed and used in Boots’ bottle-blowing facility. The only investment required was for blending equipment to mix virgin and recycled polymers. An initial level of 30% recycled PET was established, allowing processing conditions to remain unchanged from those used for virgin polymer. There was no effect on the appearance of the clear bottles. Work is now underway to increase the level of recycled content and to investigate its application in other polymers. For more from Boots, see sidebar page 55.

Recycling rates rise

Another positive out of the U.K. is that the recycling rates have quadrupled since around 2000 to the point that its rates are on par with the rest of Europe. Today, about 55% of all U.K. packaging is recovered and recycled. While that falls short of Germany’s 68%, it still places the U.K. respectably among other European countries.

A new development near London has the potential to push that amount higher. Closed Loop Recycling’s new facility in Dagenham, near London, was expected to be operational in November. The facility receives bundles of crushed bottles in bales, and then turns those into food-grade PET flakes or HDPE pellets. Initial customers include Coca-Cola Enterprises, Marks & Spencer, Nampak Plastics Europe, and Solo Cup-Europe.

M&S chief executive Sir Stuart Rose says, “We will be able to send some of our Food To Go Packaging waste for recycling, and use even more recycled plastic in our M&S packaging. Reducing the amount of waste in our stores and using more sustainable sources for our packaging is one of the aims of our ‘eco plan, Plan A’.”

Adds Chris Dow, CLR’s managing director, “This plant represents evidence that the UK is undergoing a recycling revolution. Each plastic bottle we recycle reduces its carbon footprint by around 25 percent.”

CLR is a partnership with Veolia, the largest independent waste company in the UK, according to Nick Cliffe, CLR’s marketing manager.

“We’re seeing a lot of drive from all sorts of sectors,” says Cliffe.

“We have national targets for the volumes of material recycled, and the volumes of recycled material being used. And there are fines from the European Union if landfill materials exceed targets. Some major retailers and supermarkets are starting to bring bins in-store to recover the packaging from the products that they sell. And we’ve seen a very strong demand for the recycled material. I think we could double or quadruple our output rapidly and probably find buyers for the material quickly.” CLR is already planning a second site with visions for more as well as a facility that would handle commingled plastics.

Developments like these and others will continue to surface in the U.K. and throughout Europe, including these recent examples:

• French retailer Casino launched in summer 2008 a carbon-labeling initiative for its private-label products. A color code denotes the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the manufacturing of the products’ packaging, the amount of packaging to be recycled, and the amount of CO2 emitted in transportation. Developed by Bio Intelligence Service, the study was carried out with dozens of suppliers across 15 food lines, from yogurt to soup to pizza. Casino’s goal is to carbon-label 3,000 of its food products by the end of 2008.

• Three bioplastics facilities are planned for Germany. These include a BASF facility for Ecoflex, Pyramid Plastics for polylactic acid, and Plantic Technologies Ltd. for its starch-based materials.

• U.K. bottled water suppliers Danone Waters, Highland Spring, and Nestlé Waters formed the Natural Hydration Council in September, to provide “authoritative” information and advice regarding bottled water, a format that has been under fire regionally and globally for environmental shortcomings.

Healthy and holistic

INCPEN sees developments headed along a well-thought out, holistic approach to sustainability. For example, INCPEN member Boots developed a “Product Journey.” The retail chain of chemists, aka pharmacies, took a measured look at the carbon footprint created by the product and its packaging, from sourcing (does it come from a sustainable, certified material?) through distribution and end use (is it in the right size and format for delivery through the supply chain?).

“This kind of holistic approach is healthy thinking that is becoming more widespread,” says Bickerstaffe, who realizes that there is no simple solution, noting that packaging is an art as well as a science.

She also realizes that there’s no point in producing an environmentally sound container that people won’t buy. “We should get rid of bad packaging, but we don’t think there’s a lot of that,” Bickerstaffe states. “This is really not about reducing packaging, it’s about optimizing it. If companies take a holistic approach in looking at all aspects of packaging, including the environmental impact, some good solutions will come of it.”

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