Sustainable packaging is no longer an option, it’s a necessity.
Packaging, especially plastic packaging, is in the crosshairs. Consumers view plastic as least environmentally friendly form of packaging.
This negative reputation is somewhat misleading, since packaging plays a vital role in keeping essential items like food and medicines fresh and safe (more about this on my first post).
Also, there are increasingly demanding environmental laws that push to improve packaging recyclability and recycled content.
Among the most ambitious concepts or philosophies created to improve the sustainability for consumer goods, where packaging plays an important role, is circular economy.
Circular economy is an economic system of closed loops in which raw materials, components and products lose their value as little as possible, thus minimizing waste, closing ecologic and economic loops.
I presented another similar concept in my previous post: Cradle to Cradle (C2C): where materials are chosen regarding their intrinsic value and their useful afterlife in recycled or even upcycled products.
C2C is a concept of total recycling through design. The product is conceived so that the cost of recycling is lower than the cost of buying new materials. On the other hand, cIrcular economy is a concept that promotes companies integration ito reuse the waste of a company as a resource for another one.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the importance of packaging clearer. Consumers are more hesitant to purchase food without packaging, and the demand for single use products been growing.
Also, demand for packaging such as cardboard boxes and other packing materials has actually increased to fulfil online delivery orders, which have soared during the pandemic due to the rise of the stay-at-home economy.
Furthermore, priorities have drastically changed. Consumers previously assessed the desirability of packaging largely based on superficial traits: appearance, branding, trendiness. Now, they focus on hygiene factors, and are taking into account how protected a product is, and whether the packaging is germ or virus-free.
Regarding packaging sustainability, COVID-19 has had adverse effects since it has taken a back seat to safety. For instance, UK plastic straw ban was delayed from April to October.
Another negative consequence of the pandemic is the reduction of recycling collections and closures of recycling sites.
Some companies (for example in food delivery) have shifted to compostable packaging (which has issues of its own as shown on this post) or increased the percentage of recycled material In their packaging (you can check a short article about this here).
We have moved from the famous 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) to the 5 Rs (3 Rs + Renew and Replace), and even to the 7 Rs (adding Rethink and Refuse).
So reusing has always been a key concept in sustainability.
However, there’s been a shift to disposable packaging over the years, and moreover to smaller, more convenient formats that increase the packaging/product ratio.
A crucial step in this direction was when lighter easy to transport PET preforms replaced glass bottles (returnable PET bottles are still an exception).
Over the last two decades, sustainability in general and packaging sustainability in particular, have become increasingly important.
FMCG companies and packaging manufacturers have now to consider public opinion and government regulations, while in the past only sustainability measures with an economic advantage were implemented – the most typical example being lightweighting and reusable packaging. However, the latest was ,mainly used for business to business (B2B) products.
In B2B, reusable packaging also known as returnable packaging, returnable transport packaging (RTP), reusable transport items (RTI) as well as other terms, consists of durable handheld and bulk containers, pallets, shipping racks, dunnage and other related items intended to be reused many times.
One of the first uses of returnable pacakging was to transport parts from suppliers to the final manufacturer, mainly in the automotive industry. Some parts are very heavy (engines) or very fragile (windows, windshields), so they require very expensive protective packaging (sometimes made of wood and/or metal).
This type of tertiary packaging is on occasions customized for specific parts (i.e. thermoformed trays) and whenever possible is collapsible (see a video and some examples below).
The most typical example of this type of packaging are IBCs Intermediate bulk containers (also known as IBC tote, IBC tank, IBC, or pallet tank) for the mass handling, transport, and storage of liquids, semi-solids, pastes, or solids.
There are several types including collapsible and cardboard IBCs for liquids.
Returnable Packaging in FMCG
Most packaging is used in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) products.
I remember that in the 80’s mineral water and soft drinks glass bottles were returned to the supermarkets, before beverage companies moved to cheaper, lighter, and more convenient PET.
Return on the go packaging
Returning the glass bottles to the supermarket for a small refund is an example of deposit or return on the go model for reusing packaging.
Deposit systems seem to have their drawbacks, like incentivizing the use of large format PET bottles. For instance, last May the Scottish Parliament voted approved regulations that will establish a (DRS) for single-use drinks containers in Scotland, and British Glass, Alupro and MMPA had previously aired their concerns about this system, mainly the increase in volumes of plastic packaging and CO2 emissions.
Returnable PET bottles
One of the most commonplace Returnable PET containers is large PET bottles used for office water coolers. Here’s an example of a 100% recycled PET water cooler PET bottle for home and office delivery (HOD).
Reusable PET bottles are used in some European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. Belgium and Sweden are the only other countries where refillable bottles are sometimes used, especially for mineral water.
In terms of the international market, South America in particular still uses refillable bottles for soft drinks, and I’ve also read about examples in Brazil and South Africa. (Here’s an example for milk in Austria).
However, compared to glass, PET is not gas-tight, which significantly reduces the shelf life of juices or carbonated beverages. While this can be reversed by applying a silicon oxide (SiOx) barrier coating via plasma technology, this coating is not resistant to the aggressive caustic soda used to wash returnable bottles.
IKV and KHS have developed a coating system ( PECVD gas barrier coating technology ) that can withstanding the washing process, and allows PET bottles to be cleaned and safely reused up to 20 times.
The number of times reusable bottles can endure is a very important factor, that can make reuse the most sustainable option. According to athis study that compares recycling versus refilling PET bottles, both options score similarly in environmental terms.
The success of retunable botlles also depends on the culturea nd habits of the different countries. According to this article: ” Refillable bottles have a long tradition in Germany and are also valued for practical reasons: It is much less hassle to return empty bottles into a crate than to collect them and return them to the collection point in rather unsuitable containers.”
Of course, new developments that contribute to make reusable bottles cheaper or more convenient (see an example on the image and link to article below) can tip the scale in their favor.
Other types of Reusable Packaging
This is an example of deposit or return on the go model for reusing packaging. On the left there’s a diagram of the four models of reuse, and the link to a very interesting report on packaging reuse form the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation that includes over 60 examples of reusable packaging.
On the next post, I’ll comment on a few examples corresponding to these four different models.
October 2020, Bruno Rey – The Packaging Blog –