We Can’t Go On Like This

This is one week’s worth of packaging as consumed by the five members of the CR editorial team. Mark Sinclair looked at how design can help to reign in this mountain of plastics, glass and paper

We tried an experiment a few weeks ago. Each of the CR editorial team would save all the packaging they received at work and consumed at home over seven days – we’d then collect it together and see how much we got through. We were surprised by the amount of it but, more so, by what it was made up of – hardly any tin cans (which we knew were easy to recycle) but a surplus of plastic packaging and film wrappings (which are much more difficult); a wealth of cardboard and paper (OK) but a glut of polystyrene in the form of 34 cups (a recycling bugbear) from the local tea shop.

While we realised that we could make some simple changes ourselves to reduce the amount of packaging consumed (make tea in the office, for example) much of the stuff seemed to have come to us without much of a say on our part. It was just how it came from the supermarket, the newsagents, the DIY shop – and we were then lumbered with dealing with the packaging.

In the past few months, however, most of the UK’s leading supermarkets have pledged encouraging changes concerning the packaging of the goods they sell in their stores. ASDA announced (somewhat ambitiously) that it’s to reduce its own label packaging by 25% within a year; Sainsbury’s now requires that all its designers and producers adhere to its Core Standards, which include elements based on the principle of “reduce, reuse, recycle”; and Tesco are looking towards labelling each of their 70,000 products with an individual carbon rating. For the big supermarket chains, being green has never been such a timely and important concern.

Marks & Spencer have just launched their £200m eco-drive, Plan A – so called, as chief executive Stuart Rose stated with environmentalist fervour, “because there is no plan B”. The company’s exhaustive 100-point plan means that by 2012 M&S will, among other things, have become carbon neutral and will no longer send any of its waste to landfill sites. This is encouraging stuff and comes after 18 months’ work with WRAP, the not-for-profit Waste & Resources Action Programme that promotes waste awareness, waste minimisation and encourages the growth in markets for recycled materials and products.

Mark Barthel, WRAP’s special advisor on retail innovation, was also involved – in addition to Plan A – in the creation of the Courtauld Commitment, the organisation’s ministerial summit that invited the top 13 grocery retailers to sign up to finding new ways to reduce their packaging. Barthel believes there are several core questions (forming integral aspects of both Plan A and Courtauld) that retailers and manufacturers should be asking in their collaborations with designers in order to reduce excessive, often completely unnecessary, packaging.

“One of the first things we look at in all cases is the right material selection,” says Barthel. “If you’re using HDPE (high-density polyethylene) or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) can you incorporate recycled content into it, reducing the need for virgin material? Can this become a ‘closed loop situation’, where the product can be recycled into the same thing again? How can you minimise the packaging? Do you really need a paper wrap around each teabag, a sleeve around a ready meal, a box for a pizza?”

All very well, but how does this translate into the design pitch for a product or, even further down the line, the client meetings that touch (as so many design decisions do nowadays) on any environmental issues? “When we push for environmental alternatives in our designs, the client is usually responsive,” says Shawn Rosenberger of Turner Duckworth’s San Francisco design studio. “However, trying to re-tool their operations within the schedule they have to work with often pushes the initiative to the sidelines.” Rosenberger cites “the client handling the form and dieline and not including our input; the limitations of the material; and the safety and security issues, such as tamper-proof food packaging and packaging that has to survive interstate transport” as barriers to making packaging environmentally friendly.

One packaging innovation that’s gaining momentum is the use of bio-polymers such as PLA (polylactic acid); a corn starch or sugar cane based material that can be made into containers that are completely bio-degradable. US company NatureWorks made the world’s first “compostable” drinks bottle for the Colorado-based brand, BIOTA, and also the “bio bottle” for Belu, the first company to sell their spring water in corn starch bottles in the UK. According to Belu (BIOTA’s stance is identical) “the bio bottle can be commercially composted back to soil in just twelve weeks”.

But herein lies a problem that is also facing drinks brand Innocent, who are trialing a corn starch bottle on consumers at the moment: the UK’s recycling infrastructure is simply not ready to deal with this kind of waste. The plastic film used on M&S sandwiches and pasta tubs is corn-based; it’s extremely thin and can bio-degrade easily. A bottle, however, has to be thick and sturdy and so the conditions needed to home compost it are rigidly specific (60º temperatures, the right balance of compost materials) and, infuriatingly, there are currently no recycling companies able to recycle these bottles at their plants, according to a letsrecycle.com investigation completed late last year.

To compound the issue, “anything bottle shaped tends to end up in the recycling bin,” adds Barthel “as deep in the consumer psyche, it’s a bottle, and so goes in the box. There’s then a danger of contamination: if there’s over 1% PLA content in a PET recycling strain, the PET goes from a clear to a cloudy, opaque material. Even further and you affect the structure of the material which would, theoretically, start to leak on the shelf.”

“New technologies are generally more expensive or impossible to resource due to limited supplies,” adds Turner Duckworth’s Radu Ranga. “In the case of corn starch, for example, one producer had an exclusive licence with a buyer and we couldn’t source it as a replacement for plastic – apparently the moral high ground has exclusive rights at times.” Yet it is very early days for PLA and surely only a matter of time before UK councils and recycling plants catch up with innovation. “Unless you raise awareness of new options and possibilities, the UK consumer is not going to know that it is possible to create bio-degradable plastics,” Innocent respond, quite sensibly.

So perhaps it is the attitudes of the supermarkets that need to change even further? Take M&S again – while they’re heartily championing a new “green store” set to open in Bournemouth and continually upping the amounts of recycled materials in their packaging, a quick stroll down the fruit and veg aisle of any of their food stores and the sheer volume of over-packaged apples, pears and peppers is surely of more concern than the fact that the film on a sandwich carton is no longer made from plastic.

Things are beginning to change, however, and some statistics actually make for encouraging reading. According to INCPEN, glass containers are on average 30% lighter than in 1980, while the weight of cans has fallen by a similar figure in the last 20 years. Carrier bags, often the scapegoat of the anti-packaging lobby, are in fact 45% lighter than in 1990. Now take a look at the long list of innovative packaging on www.wrap.org.uk: these designs present, as it were, considerable food for thought.


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