Kati Randell, Strategic Packaging Development Manager, Paulig Drinks
Many consumers have strong opinions about sustainability of packages, however, most of them are based on emotions, not facts. So, asking consumers which packaging material they prefer from a sustainability point of view is not the right starting point for packaging development. We should know which kind of actions consumers are willing to take for environmental reasons. Packaging development and material selection should, however, not be left for consumers to decide. Below discussed are some of the common myths prevalent in the society and how they contrast with the reality.
Myth 1: In the food chain, package counts for the biggest share of environmental effects
Packaging is often the only physical matter consumers deal with from the long value chain of foods and beverages after consuming the product. No wonder the package also seems to be the biggest factor in the environmental effects of the products. When the carbon footprint of an average European consumer is calculated, the share of food and beverages varies usually between 15 and 20 percent while that of food packaging is comparatively less. The only exception is the beverages with relatively low carbon footprint (like water and soft drinks) where the share of packaging can be as high as 30 to 70 percent.
When we review items such as ground coffee, the share of all the packaging materials on carbon footprint varies depending on the origin country. So to make the biggest impact on climate change, we must optimize the fertilization and processing of coffee beans as well as teach consumers to prepare only the amount of coffee they consume.
Biodegradable and compostable packages can be utilized as raw material for biogas production, however, when recycled to new materials/products they save much more resources
In addition, we should remind them not to keep the coffee machine heated if they’re no longer drinking the coffee. The share of packaging is low despite the environmental effect measured, not just global warming. In spite of that we at packaging development, must, of course, do our share and further lower the environmental effects of packages. For example, carbon footprint of plastic packages can be notably decreased with renewable raw materials. That is why we at Paulig have set our target to have all Paulig coffee packages made of 100 percent renewable raw materials by 2025.
Myth 2: Paper and compostable materials are good, plastic is bad for environment
I often get a request to recommend the best packaging material for a novelty product. Consumers want to make easy choices and therefore it would be nice to be able to simplify things: one material is good, another one is bad. However, the environmental effects of materials totally depend on the KPI used: whether it is global warming, water consumption, or diversity of nature, among other criteria. Any material can be presented as good or bad by just selecting the specific KPI.
Consumers have preferred fibre-based materials over plastic for decades, and with more frequent news about plastics in oceans, opinions have just sharpened. In addition, biodegradable and compostable materials are often seen as environmentally friendly. However, compostable and biodegradable materials aren’t suitable for recycling. Nor do they fulfil the EU requirements for recycling since composting or usage as biogas is not defined as recycling. On the contrary they may harm the recycling process. Biodegradable packages won’t degrade in nature. Only compostable package can be composted and, in most cases, industrial composting is needed.
Packaging materials do not contain important nutrients for plants, so they do not usually add any value to compost. Biodegradable and compostable packages can be utilized as raw material for biogas production, however, when recycled to new materials/ products they save much more resources.
Plastic materials, on the other hand, have superior features compared to other materials. They are light weight and offer puncture resistance and barrier properties required to maintain the quality of products during transportation and storage.
Myth 3: Packaging material is recycled when it is sorted to a collection container
For plastic packages to be recycled there needs to be a good infrastructure for collecting the packaging waste. Moreover, consumers must be able to sort the package to the right container. And the material needs to be recyclable, identified and processed in the recycling process. The end-user must be able to utilize the recycled material. So even though all plastic packages would be recyclable they would not be recycled in today’s world. Most of the packages are recyclable already today, still too many of them end up in land filling or oceans. For consumers, recycling often means sorting the package into the correct collection container.
Developing sustainable packages
When packages are made from sustainable raw materials and correctly sorted and recycled after usage, they can considerably reduce the environmental effects of the packaged products and do not end up as waste. They are raw material to other products or can at least be used as energy. However, it is not enough that we only do packaging material or structure development. We will need closer cooperation in the whole value chain from packaging raw materials to manufacturers of recycled materials, including infrastructure to sorting and recycling. We will also need to have active discussions between companies and legislators. Consumer education will also be crucial in the journey ahead.