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The search for sustainable packaging

Rodney Steel, chief executive of the British Contract Manufacturers and Packers Association, discusses the latest trends in packaging and how ‘sustainability’ can sometimes become the victim of its own headlines.

The topic of sustainability will remain centre stage for the foreseeable future. It dominated hearts and minds throughout 2019, becoming very much aligned to global environmental campaigns championed by the likes of Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg. As the headlines gather more traction, the demand for sustainability and a more responsible attitude towards the protection of our planet quite rightly increases.  

At the forefront of this is a high consumer demand for sustainable packaging. But do consumers really know when packaging is sustainable and when it is not? 

The BCMPA, which recently repositioned itself as the ‘Association for Contract Manufacturing, Packing, Fulfilment & Logistics’ to better reflect the full service provided by its members, has witnessed first-hand the sustainability issue unfolding across the entire supply chain – from manufacture to end delivery.  

We are all deeply involved in finding the best solutions and sharing best practice. But often, some of the positive thinking can be drowned out by the noise created by the headlines.  

Zero-waste packaging, reusable packaging and earth-friendly or eco-packaging are all terms that are becoming increasingly popular. And they are all areas in which our members are helping to pioneer.      

Neil Humphrey, sales director at Mailway, a member of the BCMPA, said, “Five years ago, sustainable packaging was rarely mentioned by our customers and now it is a requirement of most new enquiries we receive, especially from new businesses and start-ups.” 

But he warns: “In today’s environmentally conscious atmosphere, everyone is desperate to do the ‘right thing’ yet running the risk of accidentally doing the wrong thing.”  

Creating waste 

This point illustrates that while companies try to individually respond to the consumer demand for sustainability, their subsequent actions, however well intentioned, may sometimes have a knock-on effect through other parts of the supply chain. 

Removing the plastic wrap from supermarket cucumbers, for example, reduces its lifespan by about 14 days. This potentially increases the chance of excessive food waste, causing increased CO2 emissions. Even if consumers changed their buying behaviour and expectations of food freshness, the altered lifecycle of the cucumber could also lead to more trips to the supermarket – by the consumer and the logistics provider.  

Richard Smith, director at Linwood Raker, said, “We’ve noticed a recent demand for paper-based packaging that is as cheap as a plastic bag. While paper is easy to recycle, it isn’t always the best solution for every product.”     

At the start of the sustainability debate, the drive to reduce single-use plastic fully took hold with the introduction of the plastic bag fee in 2015. The nation then went into somewhat of a frenzy, demonising plastic as a material altogether, but ignoring that replacing them for example with ‘American style’ paper bags, would typically require 20 times as many vehicles to deliver them to the retailer.   

A familiar concern among our members is how to address the consumer demand for plastic-free packaging while at the same time being genuinely sustainable. The real temptation is to follow demand when faced with the alternative of losing business – even when it’s not always the right thing to do.   

Sustainable packaging alternatives 

The role of plastic in the supply chain continues to be an emotional touchpoint with consumers. However, we must take a considered overview of how changes impact the whole supply chain. BCMPA members are therefore working hard to find sustainable packaging alternatives that are ‘real’ solutions rather than quick, temporary fixes. 

Sarah Johnson, marketing manager at Cannon Packing & Logistics (CPL), agreed that companies were frequently influenced by anti-plastic media headlines: “We’ve seen single-use packaging withdrawn at point of sale with no consideration for the whole of the supply chain. Single-use plastics are increasingly being exchanged for ‘sustainable’ packaging only for the sake of presentation, without thought of the bigger environmental picture.”    

While plastic alternatives such as cardboard and paper may appear to be more sustainable, their carbon footprint can be equally as damaging. Then you have the practical issues of minimising pack sizes to reduce the impact of delivery vehicles – and ensuring packaging properly protects the product, including protection from wet weather.  

 “We work closely with our customers to pioneer the latest sustainable solutions such as biodegradable plastic,” said Johnson. “We’re also noticing that many customers are refreshing their supply chain and transport by introducing reusable stillages and containers,” she added, “For these technologies to be successfully integrated, companies cannot lose sight of the overall functionality for the consumer during the design process, which is where outsourcing companies can provide guidance.” 

Outsourcing is one way to achieve true sustainability in packaging, where innovative new materials emerge that, through partnership working, start to bridge the gap between being eco-friendly, practical, functional and commercially viable. One example is the development of stronger but lighter weight materials. BCMPA members are on the front line, with the benefit of access to many associated businesses across the packaging industry who are working on these challenges. They understand the choices available and the potential pros and cons aligned to different options. 

So, searching for a sustainable solution may be complicated, but with the support, knowledge and resources of an outsourcing company, it is still possible to introduce creative and workable options to these complex challenges.  

Rodney Steel reports.

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