Plastics are a hot talking point in Europe. Just recently, a coalition of 34 organisations spanning businesses, trade associations and charities called on the EU to implement a minimum requirement for recycled plastics in new products. The coalition’s call was made in response to what it viewed as omissions in the European Plastics Strategy, which is designed to protect against plastic pollution and promote a more circular economy. This is supported by amendments to the EU Packaging & Packaging Waste Directive. These were made at the end of May to, by large, improve packaging recovery and recycling.
Whilst a lot of the current attention tends to focus on the end of the packaging life-cycle, companies should take heed of the circular economy concept when looking to improve packaging sustainability.
It is logical to start with recyclability when developing a sustainable packaging strategy. After all, packaging end-of-life and what happens to the packaging once it has performed its role is a crucial part of sustainability. However, it can be just as advantageous to start with taking a more circular view of packaging performance throughout the whole supply chain. This approach considers the final stages of the packaging’s journey as well its environmental impact during its various stages of production and usage. This circular view should start with a key performance requirement of the packaging – damage prevention.
REDUCING DAMAGE & WASTE
If packaging doesn’t properly protect against supply chain hazards, companies risk a complete loss of both the product and the packaging. This may mean that goods then have to remade, repackaged and redistributed. This all requires additional energy and resources, increasing the environmental footprint.
But this can be avoided if the correct design tools are leveraged such as pre-shipment distribution testing, enabling a means of validating packaging design prior to going to market. During testing, supply chain hazards can be simulated in a certified laboratory, creating a safe space to determine packaging performance requirements so that the packaging solution offers optimal protection when it’s used in the real world. The pre-shipment distribution tests establish a means of evaluating multiple designs and materials to a standardised performance threshold. It’s an extremely accurate predictive tool that helps packaging professionals understand and determine modern supply chain risks and how they can mitigate damage.
Looking beyond damage control, another key area where packaging can deliver significant sustainability benefits is cube optimisation. By using a lower volume of packaging material, companies can transport more product – and less packaging – per square metre. This can mean more efficient supply chains and reduced carbon emissions.
However, achieving cube optimisation isn’t as simple as cut packaging, save space. Using less packaging may increase the risks of product damage. Robust testing and analysis need to be completed to identify how packaging can be minimised, while maximising protection. facVibration tests can replicate how a packaging solution will respond when stacked and compressed in transit. Whereas drop tests can recreate the shocks of unforeseen and accidental occurrences such as a package being dropped during handling. Drop tests can be set to replicate free falls and sudden shocks from different heights and varying angles.
As well as specifying the required volume of packaging material, these tests determine the specification of the best-fit packaging design and format. Product size, weight and surface area, along with fragility, will all have been measured. This means that functionality such as blocking and bracing, cushioning, suspension or void-fill can be considered to arrive at a packaging solution that offers sufficient protection and makes the best use of transit space.
As companies strive to improve packaging sustainability, they should approach the available choice of packaging material with an open-mind. By avoiding any perceived bias towards one particular material or another, they can ensure that materials are not needlessly discounted during development of their solution and environmental benefits missed.
For example, a company may decide to switch from plastic materials or foams, believing these to be less environmentally compliant. However, such packaging solutions may use less resource during their production, reduce the volume of packaging required to deliver product protection and can even be reused. By considering the full life-cycle of the packaging material, the environmental and economic costs of producing it, and how reusable or recyclable it is when it has served its purpose, businesses can make an informed choice.
A truly circular view to packaging should be taken and all elements considered in equal value when it comes to trying to be more sustainable. Installing a standardised framework, such as the International Safe Transit Association’s (ISTA) Responsible Packaging by Design (RPbD) Guide, to provide guidance through responsible considerations at the design stage will ensure positive results are achieved across all areas of the packaging system.
Looking beyond the importance of recyclability and considering sustainability throughout the whole supply chain, will help companies to reduce the environmental footprint of packaging.