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Sustainability Dominates PEF 2019

Experts from the world’s leading packaging technology and solutions providers demonstrated, discussed and dissected the challenges within our industry at the recent Packaging Excellence Forum in Amsterdam, which was co-chaired by the Packaging Collective’s Sanjay Patel.

Now in its fifth year, the two-day conference brought together speakers and delegates from around the globe to highlight business strategies for successfully tackling packaging issues such as changes in legislation, innovation and responsibility, across sectors as diverse as FMCG, food & beverages, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and luxury goods.

More than 20 individual speakers and hundreds of delegates convened to spotlight myriad aspects of the industry, but discussion was ultimately dominated by an issue which has been a controversial talking point since the BBC’s Blue Planet II documentary first aired in late 2017 - sustainability. And with the issue presenting such philosophical, cultural and strategic challenges, it is clear that the industry must come together to find its own ‘North Star’ - a common goal that everyone can work towards.

The forum heard how compostable and marine-biodegradable packaging solutions had provided the beginnings of an air of positivity - certainly for consumers - in being able to transform the reputation of packaging, but many questions remain about how the industry can become truly sustainable.

Across the two-day event, leading industry professionals examined and laid out their own ideas on how best to build a path to a sustainable future…

We need to drive sustainability and reduce emissions

In his opening remarks, author, academic and sustainability consultant Dr Lowellyne James, co-chair of the event, outlined the current challenges facing the industry – highlighting increases in so-called ‘plastic attacks’ at supermarket checkouts and the growth in mass protests around the globe, particularly involving students. He explained that the challenge comprised the issues of tackling packaging waste, the single-use mindset, and of course the overall strategic challenge of fortifying plastic’s place in today’s world.

Co-chair Sanjay Patel, founding partner of the Packaging Collective, then took delegates through the need to re-evaluate the role of packaging in the current climate, specifically the role that we, as experienced packaging professionals, can play in designing, specifying and developing new packaging substrates and formats.

Legislation – help or hindrance?

Among the popular talking points was the impact that Europe-wide and country-wide legislation was having on the sustainability agenda. Hans Van Bochove, of Coca Cola, explained how the changing consumer agenda had led politicians to introduce new laws and directives, including the EU Plastic Strategy. But he pointed out that for countries with bespoke recycling, waste and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes – an initiative where brands and manufacturers take responsibility for their products and packaging once it becomes waste – that same EU-wide legislation can actually serve to move the goalposts to such an extent that some countries will automatically fall below the minimum targets stipulated.

Mr Van Bochove added that EU legislation tended to focus on plastics in packaging, forcing brands to redesign their packaging in order to serve end-of-life considerations, a sometimes lengthy and challenging process that inevitably incurs costs and difficulties for brands. But with research showing that recycling is of increasing importance to consumers, demonstrating recyclability and high levels of recycled content in PETs can actually work to make a product more attractive. With costs potentially being offset by increased sales, the potential is ultimately there for a more sustainable future.

On the same topic, Rob Verhagen, of Rethink Plastics, discussed the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive, part of which enforces a ban on single-use plastics for which alternatives exist on the market, citing examples such as cutlery, drinking straws, cotton bud sticks and food & drink containers. Whilst emotion is driving the debate, he said, the question remains of what the real alternatives are and whether they match the quality and functionality of plastic. But with this in mind, he also said that it was vital all future policies and actions took a balanced approach - with a keen eye on potential unintended consequences.

Innovation v Sustainability v Profitability

Nadav Goldstein, of Kafrit Group, considered the importance of brands evaluating their supply chain manufacturing processes to provide both innovative and sustainable solutions to customers. Such innovations, he said, included foaming agents and alternative materials for traditional substrate specifications, but the challenge to balance functionality with sustainability is one which is not resolved easily.

Author, academic and sustainability consultant Dr Lowellyne James highlighted to delegates the importance for any business with a strategy heavily geared towards sustainability to also be profitable, enabling continuous innovation and R&D - paramount to an industry which is being questioned from all quarters. A balanced approach must be taken by not favouring one over the other, he said, and it is essential to focus on a higher purpose by looking at values, KPIs, systems and targets for the future.

Producers should – and do - have a responsibility

Joachim Quoden, of Expra, spoke in detail about how obligations to make the producer responsible for output is gaining substantial traction across the EU, despite different countries adopting different, if not unique, operating EPR models.

Although the new modulated fees and the general minimum requirements, as set out in the Waste Framework Directive Article 8A, will help to boost sustainability and efficiency, Joachim also pointed out that the question of ‘what is recyclable?’ has often been a theoretical test, depending on whether it was financially – rather than technically – possible to recycle. However, he was optimistic that we as an industry will meet the technical challenges of meeting high recycling rates, new measures of how recycling is counted and even a separate target for PET bottles.

Several workstreams are already in progress to further contribute to the discussion, together with additional activities planned in litter prevention based on five pillars: infrastructure, communications, enforcement, participation, and the environment.

After a massively informative (and busy) two days, the 2019 Packaging Excellence Forum proved itself a key industry event, providing an invaluable platform for packaging brands to come together, share ideas and ultimately move the sector towards a sustainable future.

Sustainability is a significant concern for consumers and brands are only too aware they must respond if they are to stay relevant. Whilst sustainability is not the only issue affecting our future, it is the perfect starting point to bring everyone together and begin working towards our own ‘North Star.’

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