Why do we need packaging?

Without it, many of the goods manufactured or grown would be damaged or spoiled before they reached the shops. In less developed countries without the sophisticated distribution and packaging systems that we have in the UK, as much as 50% of food never reaches consumers.

Some goods (such as fruit and vegetables) do not need any protection for shoppers to carry them home – but none could be transported from producer to shop without packaging. Packaging involves a multi-stage process for getting goods from production to consumption. It includes primary or sales packaging (what we take home), secondary packaging (boxes, trays and film wrap that group the items together) and transport packaging (cartons, larger containers and pallets that allow the grouped items to be loaded onto lorries). The packaging for all three stages is chosen in combination to provide the right level of protection to keep damage and wastage to a minimum.

What’s the definition of ‘packaging’?

In daily life we think of packaging as boxes, bags, tins, bottles, wrapping and pots. When introducing new laws which set packaging recycling targets, European Commission officials spent many hours trying to agree a legal definition, and considering whether a carrier bag, a flower pot, a lollipop stick or an envelope were ‘packaging’. (The answers are not straightforward – a pot is not packaging if it stays with the plant all its life, it is if the plant is potted out!) For ordinary people, packaging is simply the protective layer around our shopping.

What is the best material for packaging?

There isn’t a single “best” material for all products – just an appropriate one for a quantity of a particular product in a particular application. You cannot pack toothpaste in a paper bag, but paper bags are perfect for flour.

Why is there so much over-packaging?

Few of our day to day purchases are over-packaged for the simple reason that packaging costs producers money and the less they have to use, the more competitive they are.

Some items may appear to have unnecessary packaging but that may be because we are not aware of the stresses and strains of the distribution system and the kind of protection needed. Boxes may be stacked 10 meters high in a warehouse, left on a dockside for 12 hours, or shaken about in delivery vehicles, so the packaging has to withstand crushing, exposure to extreme temperature changes and moisture, as well as vibration.

Different layers of packaging, made out of different materials, often prompt criticism of over-packaging but in reality those different layers each perform a different function, and were chosen to reduce the total packaging needed. Using just one kind of material would make the pack heavier, which has knock-on effects on the amount of lorries needed for distribution, and the fuel. For example, packaging for cheese is made from layers of different plastics, if just one type was used the packaging would have to be at least twice as thick.

What is the packaging industry doing to reduce its environmental impact?

INCPEN was formed in 1974 for the express reason of assessing the environmental and social impacts of packaging, at a time when such concerns were not on most people’s agenda. It is important to remember that the main purpose of packaging is to protect goods, and ensure that the goods inside are not wasted because of damage. Typically ten times more resources go into the contents than the packaging.

In 2008, for the first time, more than half the world’s population lived in an urban environment. Urban populations rely on the food and other goods they need being grown or made outside towns and villages and then transported into the urban areas. Without packaging, the environmental impact of doing this would be far greater.

As an industry the packaging sector has achieved enormous reductions in the amount of material needed to pack a unit of goods, and the ongoing innovations in packaging help to conserve resources.Are there laws about the environmental impact of packaging?

Yes. The cost of packaging is a strong driver for manufacturers to reduce it to a minimum but in the UK there are also two laws that require manufacturers to design packaging systems to minimise their environmental impact. There are also Codes of Practice and a rapidly increasing number of companies operate general environmental management systems that improve the environmental profile of all their whole busines, including packaging.

Why is some packaging difficult to open?

Each of us probably handles well over 50 different items of packaging every day. If it functions properly we don’t notice it and tend to take its positive attributes for granted. Sometimes a pack is poorly designed, making opening difficult, and it should be re-designed. Some products, such as bleach, are packed in containers that are specifically designed to be difficult for children to open.

Do some goods have insufficient packaging?

Companies have to balance the need to use the minimum packaging (to save costs) with reducing product wastage. Inevitably some damage happens but the more valuable the contents, the lower percentage loss rate is accepted by the manufacturer. Another factor is the likely impact if the product leaks eg if a bag of flour splits open in a warehouse, it typically costs causes £1.00 worth of damage to other goods and costs £5.00 to clean up. If a bottle of bleach leaks, the cost of damage is likely to be far higher.

How can consumers choose the best packaging?

We don’t go shopping for packaging. We shop for baked beans, paint, shampoo and as consumers we have to trust that the manufacturer has chosen the most efficient way to pack them. The best way that we can influence the environmental impact of our purchase is to buy appropriately, to take care of the goods we buy so that they last and do not need to be replaced too soon, and also to separate for recycling any packaging which is collected locally.

Companies survive by making goods that are better and cheaper than their competitors – so there is constant pressure to keep costs down. This includes packaging which is a cost to the manufacturer of the goods. It is ironic that one of the first packs to be designed purely from an environmental angle to use minimum material and energy – the liquid food carton – is now sometimes criticised for being difficult to recycle.

Does a pre-packed meal have more or less environmental impact than basic ingredients?

People should not feel guilty about choosing a pre-prepared meal sometimes – environmentally it makes little difference. Prepared foods may use more packaging but less than 1% of the contents go to waste when meals are centrally prepared, compared with 10% – 20% of basic ingredients when we cook from scratch at home. Why? Because in a large meal-producing unit, any offcuts, outer leaves and scraps arise in a large enough quantity for them to be sold for other uses such as animal feed. In our home kitchens they can only either be put on the compost heap or thrown away.

Is it better to be able to pick fruit and vegetables from a pile than buying them pre-wrapped?

That’s a personal choice and most shops provide both options. All fruit and vegetables are packed for transport – whatever the distance. Those sold loose in the shop often need more transport packaging than those that are pre-wrapped.

The pre-packed price is often higher because of the cost of labour to select and pre-pack and the cost of the packaging, but some shoppers prefer to pay for the convenience.

What are the comparative costs of different materials used in packaging?

It is not possible to make direct comparisons because different packdifferent properties and are used to perform different functions eg plastics are good for big fizzy drink bottles rather than glass, for safety reasons, but champagne is always packaged in heavy, strong glass bottles; paper bags keep mushrooms fresh better than plastic bags.
Packaging is chosen to meet the needs of the specific product, and not on a basis of cost – although manufacturers use as little material as possible to keep costs to a minimum.
Most packs are made from a combination of materials – even glass bottles have plastic or metal tops and paper labels.

If one manufacturer can get all the information onto a tin, why does another manufacturer use a box as well as a tin?

In Europe, there is a trend away from putting tins in boxes but there could be a number of reasons. It may depend on the capability of the producer’s packing machinery (which costs millions of pounds). Manufacturers in some countries from where we import tinned fish, for example, cannot afford to invest in new machinery. Also boxed tins stack more easily in cartons and may therefore need less transport packaging.

How much of our used packaging can be recycled or composted? What should happen to the rest?

All of it can technically be recycled but it would not make environmental sense to try to do so. Materials like cardboard, plastic and glass bottles and metal cans can be recycled if they are kept separate from other waste.
However it makes no sense to try and recycle packaging that is contaminated by food, such as cheese wrappers, the plastic film and trays for raw meat, yoghurt pots or cardboard boxes from pizzas. The contamination could spoil the rest of the recycled materials in a batch plus using energy to collect, sort, clean and transport such materials to reprocessors risks using more resources than are saved by recycling. In those cases it is better to recover energy.

Given the lack of recycling facilities for plastic why are so many products packaged in plastic?

Because of their light weight and protection properties, plastics can have advantages over other materials in some circumstances. And while the packaging industry fully supports recycling, whether a pack is recyclable or not is not the main basis for choosing it. Packaging is chosen to be appropriate for the needs of the individual product, and by ensuring that the contents of the pack are not wasted, and that the minimum amount of material is used to perform that function, packaging has done its job for the environment. Whether it subsequently goes to be recycled, or is used to generate energy, is of less importance than the overall efficient use of resources. Some materials can reduce their overall burden by being recycled; others (such as light weight mixed material packs) allow goods to be distributed with far fewer lorries but may then not be worth recycling. We burn over 90% of fossil fuel energy directly for transport or to heat our homes – we use less than 4% of that fuel for plastics and by doing so often save on transport energy. In effect, we can get double the value out of the oil used for plastics packaging by using it first to protect goods and then by recovering energy from it at the end of its useful life.

Why not put labels on packs to help people know if they can recycle them?

Some packs carry information to explain what material the pack is made of. Some carry logos showing whether a pack is widely recycled (ie collected by over 65% of councils) or less likely to be recycled (collected by more than 15% but less than 65%) and unlikely (collected by less than 15%). In any case you need to check what your council wants so you do not put non-recyclable materials with those that can be recycled. It is not possible to label packs with information appropriate for each individual area or town, as each council’s recycling scheme is tailored to local conditions and to what reprocessing plant the material is sent to.

Labelling on Packaging

Do manufacturers understand that putting a plastic window in boxes, laminating cardboard, or covering a glass bottle in a plastic sheath makes it difficult or impossible to recycle?

Yes, but if this makes it more resource efficient and saves energy it may be a better option.
Also it depends on the nature of the market for the recycled materials – a mixture of materials may not be a problem eg a plastic coated glass bottle can be recycled easily in a glass furnace.

How much of my bin is used packaging?

Average dustbin contents by weight:

  • Paper and board (newsprint, magazines, mail, tissues) 23%
  • Packaging (glass and plastic bottles, metal cans, plastics film, paper wrapping, boxes) 25%
  • Kitchen and garden waste 32%
  • Other (shoes, plant pots, drinking glasses, coat hangers, furnishings, DIY waste) 20%

Is recycled content a good proxy for carbon emissions?

This is only true under certain conditions. Where the market has driven recycled content on economic grounds, reprocessing tends to involve lower carbon emissions than raw material production. This is because most of the costs in packaging are due to the energy and materials required to produce them in the first place.

This has led to the view that recycled content would be a good indicator for carbon emissions which avoids the time and expense needed for a full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). However, the logic ceases to hold in situations where the collection, sorting and cleaning processes use more energy than sourcing virgin raw materials. This is currently true of the wide range of thin laminate mixed material and plastic film packaging.

Does recycling packaging makes a significant contribution to climate change reduction?

No. Carbon embedded in packaging is equivalent to around 2% of the EU’s total annual emissions, and in most food and drink supply chains the packaging element consumes less than 10% of the energy used in the chain [sources: EU Commission, J M Kooijman].