Group Head of Sustainability, Mondi
Packaging plays an important role in protecting products — but its end-of-life impacts can also harm the environment. Thankfully, companies are increasingly looking for more sustainable solutions and using a lifecycle approach.
There’s an increasing awareness among the public that excessive packaging is harming the environment.
David Attenborough’s award-winning documentary, Blue Planet II, made it clear that between 4 and 12 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into our oceans each year, threatening marine life and polluting our food.
Not forgetting, because nearly all plastic is made from fossil fuels, its production comes from a non-renewable material.
So, it stands to reason that the most environmentally friendly solution to this devastating problem is to simply ban all packaging. Right?
Wrong, says Gladys Naylor, Group Head of Sustainability at international packaging and paper group, Mondi.
The role of packaging
“Packaging plays a critical role in our world,” she says. “There are a number of challenges we have to get to grips with, including its end-of-life; but it’s not as simple as saying ‘do away with all packaging’.”
After all, packaging makes supply chains more efficient and extends the shelf life of the products it protects.
Nor is it a simple choice to just say ‘no’ to plastic completely and only use paper-based alternatives. Naylor cites a topical example:
“Take the packaging surrounding test kits for coronavirus. It plays a hugely important role in keeping the kits sterile and protected and allows them to function without being compromised.”
33% of the world’s food is lost or wasted every year. Packaging used by the food industry can prevent contamination or spoilage and mitigates waste, which is also critical in the fight against climate change. For example, packaging for certain meat products can ensure the product lasts up to 26 days longer.
There’s a trade-off to make here, which is why Naylor believes that it’s important to use paper where possible, plastic when useful — and to be sustainable by design.
A holistic view of the packaging process
Taking a holistic view of the process is essential. “It’s not enough to think about the material your packaging is made from,” she cautions. “You have to think about the whole lifecycle.”
“For instance, how are you sourcing your raw materials? Are they renewable? What role will the packaging play? How can you make it function as efficiently as possible? What’s going to be its end-of-life?”
It’s important to use paper where possible, plastic when useful — and to be sustainable by design.
Packaging is never one-size-fits-all: what’s right for different applications and markets will differ and must be carefully considered.
It’s why good collaboration between different parts of the value chain is so critical, from the manufacturers and packaging companies to the end consumers and waste handlers.
A close working relationship allows honest conversations to take place around, for example, design specifications.
“If one of our customers wants packaging that allows its pet food to survive on the shelf for many years, we may end up designing something for them that uses more resources and complex materials, so we need to ask more questions to ensure we make the most appropriate and sustainable packaging solution,” says Naylor.
Better awareness from businesses
Mondi partners with NGOs, universities and multi-stakeholder organisations, and and is a member of Cepi’s 4evergreen Alliance working on topics like designing fibre-based products for a circular economy. The Group is also a member of CEFLEX (a circular economy initiative for flexible plastic packaging) which similarly has a working group focused on sustainable end markets.
“These types of engagements allow everyone to work together to effect change in the economy at a larger scale,” explains Naylor.
There is still work to do, she admits, because you can push your trolley around the supermarket and be exasperated by egregious examples of non-sustainable packaging, or over-packaging.
Yet many consumer-facing businesses in particular are looking for more sustainable packaging choices to meet rising consumer demands.
“On the other hand, we do have customers who are just starting on this journey and have a less mature understanding of sustainability issues and trade-offs,” says Naylor.
“It’s our job to pro-actively work with them to help move them in the right direction.”