Reductions in the amount of packaging used – “lightweighting” – didn’t start when environmental awareness emerged. Manufacturers have always sought to use less packaging in order to keep costs down, and as technology has developed, packaging has become lighter and lighter.

As our topic sheet on Too Much Packaging? shows, the least possible packaging doesn’t necessarily mean the least possible environmental impact. But lightweighting is an important part of the ongoing process of making packaging more and more resource-efficient.

From time to time, a technological breakthrough such as the introduction of a new material or manufacturing process enables a major step-change to be made and significantly less packaging to be used. More often, though, lightweighting involves shaving off tiny amounts of material as small improvements are made somewhere in the system.

Lightweighting – a constant process

The drive to reduce the weight of packaging is not new. For packaging manufacturers, making ten packs rather than five from the same amount of raw materials halves an important cost in a very price-competitive industry. For packaged goods manufacturers and retailers, the lighter the packaging, the more units can be stacked in a warehouse or loaded onto a vehicle, and reduced warehouse space and lorry movements also save money.

Commercial pressures for lightweighting predate the political interest in packaging minimisation.Although the amount of packaging on the vast majority of individual products has gone down over the years, the amount of used packaging that each of us generates in a year – roughly 160kg – has stayed the same for the last decade. That’s because households are smaller now, and with more consumer goods and a rising demand for prepackaged easy-to-prepare foods, we are buying more packaged products.

One of the most efficient ways to use less material is to combine layers of small amounts of different types so their protective properties work together to keep the product safe. This is the principle behind laminate packaging, such as the bags for ground coffee which are made of thin layers of paper, plastic and aluminium.

Choosing and designing appropriate packaging for each product is a science, and focusing on a single aspect, such a making the packaging recyclable after use, can badly distort the decision-making process.

In the 1990s packaged goods manufacturers in Germany were under pressure from the government to move away from multi-layer, laminated packaging towards more recyclable packaging.

A study of different types of packaging for ground coffee – a laminate, can and glass jar – was carried out. To package the same amount of coffee needed a glass jar weighing 470g, a metal can weighing 120g or a laminate pack weighing 11g.

The laminated pack was not recyclable, and after use all 11g remained for disposal. However, even after 80% recycling of the metal and glass – an unlikely scenario – there was far more material left (94g glass, 24g metal) for disposal from these two options than from the laminate. On top of the waste aspects, the heavier packs needed three times the number of lorries to deliver the same amount of coffee.

Contrary to expectations, by prioritising recycling above reduction, which is higher up the hierarchy, there would be more waste.

This does not mean that multi-layer packaging is necessarily better than other types of packaging. Many other factors have to be taken into account, such as shelf and storage life for the product, type and amount of transport packaging and the stresses and strains of the distribution system.

In a concerted effort to bring about an absolute reduction in packaging material use, retailers representing 92% of the grocery market signed up to a voluntary agreement, ‘The Courtauld Commitment’, in 2006. The aim was to design out packaging waste growth by 2008, and deliver absolute reductions in packaging waste by March 2010. The targets were set by WRAP, the government’s resource management advisory service and were also supported by a number of brand manufacturers. In 2009 WRAP set up an agreement between six top DIY retailers and brands to work towards a 15% packaging reduction between 2007 and 2012.

The complete package

Packaging is more than the wrapping or container we see on the supermarket shelf. That’s known as sales or primary packaging. It is also the box, tray or outer wrapping that protects and groups together products during distribution, and the container or pallet that collates the groups into larger loads for transporting the goods from the factory to the point of sale.

Companies keen to reduce their primary packaging may find that they have to increase the strength of the outer packaging in order to maintain sufficient protection for the product. Unless they think about the system as a whole when redesigning their packaging, they may end up increasing their overall material usage.

Although the issue of consumer perception mustn’t be overlooked, there is sometimes more potential for savings in transport packaging than in primary packaging. This is particularly true for products from the Far East, when the UK importer is likely to be able to have greater influence over the transport packaging than over primary packaging which is made for many different national markets.

Over-packaging and under-packaging

The challenges facing packaging technologists continue to grow. To keep costs down and avoid having to build new plants, filling speeds in the factories get faster and faster, which puts greater strain on the integrity of the packaging. Consumer expectations have risen, too – people expect delicate electronic products to work first time when taken out of the box, even if they have been shipped across the world.

Inadequate packaging is usually far worse for the environment than over-packaging, since 10-15 times more energy and materials are locked up in household goods and food than in the packaging around them.

That means that if an item is over-packaged by 10%, then 10% of the resources needed to produce the packaging are wasted and extra fuel is needed to distribute it. However if the item is under-packaged and it is spoilt or damaged, that wastes 100% of the resources used to produce both the contents and its packaging, and all of the fuel used to distribute it.

For the packaged goods producer, packaging failure can result in a big financial loss – the retail customer may reject the entire consignment and take his future business elsewhere.

Weighed against this risk, packaged goods producers have to be cautious about reducing their packaging. Large companies have the resources to carry out investigations and implement improvements. Smaller companies have fewer resources and won’t enjoy the same returns from their investment.

To help companies minimise their packaging without endangering its quality, industry experts collaborated in developing a European standard, EN 13428:2004, which explains how companies can review their packaging systematically to identify the point at which it should not be reduced further.

There are also a number of design guides which promote best practice, for example the Envirowise/INCPEN publication Packguide – a guide to packaging eco-design.