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5 Key Takeaways from Sustainability in Packaging Europe

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 11/13/2018 | 4 Minute Read

What does a sustainable future for packaging look like? This is the exact question everyone was asking at Sustainability in Packaging Europe. Brands like L’Oreal, companies like Searious Business, and some of the people behind packaging materials of the future gathered to see just what we can do to prioritize sustainability from here on out. Here are the big takeaways from the event.

Recycling is kind of confusing.

A variety of people attended Sustainability in Packaging Europe, from suppliers to big brands to innovators in the industry, and they all agreed on one thing: recycling is confusing af. We like to think that little triangular symbol with the arrows means it will be repurposed, but that’s not always the case. Even something like aluminum, which is one of the most highly recycled objects, still often ends up in the landfill. There are different symbols for different materials, and if a facility isn’t able to process a certain type of substance, it becomes waste.

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“‘Recyclable’ is a shade of gray,” explained Ramon Arratia, Sustainability Director of Ball Beverage Packaging Europe, UK. “We need to define these shades of gray. Is it recyclable in just one place, or is it widespread? How easy is it to separate each part? Is it recyclable once, twice, or indefinitely? If we want to get serious about that stuff, we need to have the debate at that level.”

So do we rely solely on single material products? Do we have just one recycling bin that accepts everything? And how can public infrastructure help make recycling on the go easier? If we’re going to make an impact, consumers need to have a better idea of how recycling works.

Big companies have made some big promises.

Carlsberg is working on Together Towards ZERO, which includes using 100% renewable electricity by 2022 and cutting water usage at their breweries by half by 2030. Tesco aims to be fully recyclable or compostable and have completely sustainable paper and board by 2025. Amcor has pledged that all their packaging will be reusable or recyclable by 2025 as well.

From Coca-Cola to Starbucks to the heaps of brands in the RE100 intending to go 100% renewable, sustainability isn’t a buzzword—it’s a game plan. With many of these deadlines mere years away, it will be interesting to see which brands achieve their goals, which brands don’t, and how consumers react.

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The industry has to work together for solutions.

Surprise surprise, but not everyone agrees on the best plan of action to make packaging more sustainable. Some think paper is the ultimate material, while others would vote for aluminum. Two-thirds of consumers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable products—and some take this as a sign that moving to more sustainable packaging will increase profits, while others believe there’s a big difference between what consumers say and actually do.

But one thing everyone can agree on is that no one can do this alone. There was a lot of talk about collaboration, including things like the Sustainable Packaging Initiative for Cosmetics which has brought together big brands in cosmetics, as well as collaborations amongst those who have a view of the whole picture(like between the industry and the government).

There are more sustainable packaging options out there then you might have guessed.

Ribbon made from used plastic, preventing 56 million bottles from ending up in the landfill each year? Completely compostable food wrappers? The company that provides the packaging materials for Google Pixel, which is all sourced from recycled materials? The only commercial Machine Direction Orientation high-shrink film provider that’s passed the recyclability test from the American Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR). Socks in aluminum cans! Not only are there options beyond plastic, but there are lots of companies willing to invest the time and money into prioritizing these innovative solutions.

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Waiting for things to be “perfect” means it will be too late.

It’s tempting to wait until just the right solution comes along—the one that will solve all of our sustainability woes. It will be a magical material that requires no energy to produce, doesn’t harm the environment during the production process, keeps products safe, and reused endlessly.

Nice as that sounds, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. So instead, it’s best to take baby steps in the right direction.

Will eliminating plastic straws eliminate our plastic waste problem? Considering they only make up 4% of global plastic waste, we know it won’t. But 4% is better than 0%, isn’t it? It’s the small steps along the way of using less plastic, using better sources, and making materials easy to recycle that will add up.

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