Why we have too much product packaging

According to WRAP (DEFRA’s Waste Resources Action Programme – www.wrap.org) across the food and beverage categories within the UK, approximately 40% of packaging is considered over-packaged. The most inefficient sector being beverages. Over-packaging is often justified on the grounds of perceived value because of the gift-purchase aspect of many alcohol brands.

Plastic Packaging on Apples

Use of Plastic Packaging on Apples

Weight and bulk are key tools for communicating brand values so reducing weight and bulk can understandably be met with some resistance. Working in collaboration through WRAP some competing brand owners have made some good progress in reducing packaging weight and bulk. For example; Mars, Nestlé, Magna and Kraft reduced Easter Egg packaging in 2009 by 25% without a negative impact on brand image or product sales.

As a director of The Less Packaging Company, I sit on the ACP (Advisory Committee for Packaging) a voluntary working group set up by DEFRA to share knowledge between Government, Local Authorities, Manufacturers, Brand Owners, Retailers, Waste Management Companies and Consumers. The objective here is for all parties to have a better understanding of everyone’s challenges and communicate a common and meaningful language whilst agreeing a set of metrics for optimising packaging. At the first meeting in November 2011, the activities of The Consumer Goods Forum were shared and it was agreed that their approach represents a realistic approach to achieving these objectives. The challenge for stake holders is agreeing a common set of metrics including commercial, environmental and social impacts. The ACP, chaired by Bob Lisney OBE, will be reporting back to Government by the end of 2012 with its findings and recommendations.o

Measuring packaging weight has been the most common metric for packaging optimisation thus far and it will continue to be an important indicator of change. However a more holistic approach to product, packaging and supply chain optimisation is the best way forward. Pack and product size, material source, space utilisation and productivity are equally important as are the material source, waste and energy recovery. Scoring the sustainability of packaging and understanding what good packaging looks like requires more in-depth analysis. For example, take a table lamp and shade made in China and sold in the UK via a high street retailer or on-line ‘etailer’. Commonly we see this packed in a corrugated box and protected with EPS (expanded polystyrene). This is the lightest and lowest cost solution on the face of it, but EPS is very bulky and difficult to store, dispose of and recycle. Yes it’s very light and protects the product rather well. However, environmentally it is not a good story so EPS is now being replaced by many retailers including M&S and B&Q. The impact of this often results in more/heavier packaging because the EPS is being replaced by corrugated fittings which by nature are heavier. This would therefore contradict the WRAP objectives in terms of reducing packaging weight, but is holistically a greener packaging solution.

We see some of the biggest examples of over-packaging within the home delivery sector. We’ve all had the blood boiling experience of a small item delivered in a huge box with lots of void fill. This happens because the fulfillment and packing operations pack 1000′s of different items of all shapes and sizes and do so using a very limited range of transit and protective packaging.These issues are being addressed, but nothing like quick enough and it is an issue which concerns everyone given the growth of this sector.

Material costs represent an increasing share of costs in packaging. Typically for a corrugated case material represents 70-80% of the pack cost and when we consider optimisation, 30% of the efficiency savings are found within the pack and 70% within the supply-chain. This split varies depending upon the supply chain length and complexity. Just reducing a glue-flap by 2mm or ensuring a carton’s locking flaps ‘butt-up’ on a multiple layout can have a huge impact on material usage, yield, and productivity and therefore cost and energy.

Most leading retailers and brands have already harvested the low-hanging fruit of packaging optimisation, but I would argue there is still lots of work to do. Being organised, strategic and open with stake holders, suppliers and customers is important. However, to make a paradigm shift takes true leadership and an acceptance that optimisation is not a department or cost centre. Like innovation and creativity, optimisation can be a driving force in any business; a way of being, which can help focus and make best use of precious resources.

Product and packaging will in the future need to be considered as a whole including environmental impact from cradle to cradle. Over or under-packaging is a reflection of wasteful behaviour, which consumers are becoming more aware of and less tolerant. Packaging and graphics are the genetic code of a brand and if the packaging does not perform its role effectively and consistently then it will eventually become eliminated, reduced or re-engineered. Meanwhile the brand may become tarnished, misunderstood and devalued.


This article was written by Ian (@portabud) who is  Board Director of The Less Packaging Company

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