Packaging sells. Its quality and aesthetic appeal, hand in hand with branding, is designed to persuade today’s time-poor and cash-rich consumer to reach for one particular product over the one sitting next to it on the supermarket shelf. It protects products too, when they’re flown thousands of miles, shrink-wrapped or suffocating in Styrofoam trays.
But everyone knows there is an ugly flipside to all the benefits of packaging – more rubbish. The 30 million tonnes of UK household waste, a quarter of which is packaging, is growing at a rate of 1-2 per cent a year. Consumers are becoming more aware of the problem, thanks to the likes of recent high-profile advertising campaigns, and they are recycling more. But they have little or no control over minimising this waste in the first place. Those who do – retailers and designers – do not appear to be taking the problem too seriously.
That could change. Last month, an £8m pot was set aside to stimulate eco-friendly packaging innovations. Aimed at packaging designers and retailers, it was launched by Wrap – the Waste & Resources Action Programme.
Environment minister Elliot Morley, who launched the £8m Innovation Fund in November, says innovation in packaging design is welcome. ‘The fund aims to support packaging design projects, providing the impetus for new ideas to be put into practice,’ he says. According to Wrap, it will ‘procure research and development projects into the design, prototyping and piloting of innovative products and packaging, materials and systems’.
According to Mark Barthel, director of waste minimisation at Wrap, the fund aims to carry on work that has already started. ‘Innovations such as compostible or edible packaging, or self-cooling cans that do without the need for fridges, have grown out of similar designer/ retailer partnerships in the past,’ he says. ‘Self-portioning, for example at deli counters, is the latest supermarket buzzword. It minimises the likelihood of food being wasted, and doesn’t involve complex packaging.’
Tesco is putting itself at the forefront of new developments in Green packaging, and partnered Wrap in launching the Innovation Fund. Supermarkets are particularly culpable, according to Wrap, as more than 40 per cent of household waste originates from their shelves.
In the past, in a bid to be more environmentally responsible, Tesco introduced pared-down packaging, but it didn’t sell well. ‘What we really need to develop is smarter packaging,’ says David North, Tesco corporate responsibility director. And that needs designers.
Sprout Design, formed this year by Rob Brown and Guy Robinson, is applying for the fund. The pair, who studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art before working for Minale Tattersfield and spending a year at the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, specialise in environmentally aware packaging. They are currently designing biodegradable packaging for a garden product for an unnamed client, and are hoping to develop Green concepts in tandem with one of the UK’s largest supermarkets.
‘The area with the biggest room for improvement is plastic trays, used to package a huge variety of food, including ready meals, fresh meat, fruit and cheese,’ says Brown. ‘The packaging often uses three different materials – coated cardboard, plastic or plastic alloys and transparent plastic wrapping. Fruit and veg are often packaged in vacuum-formed plastic trays, with netting, Cellophane or more rigid plastic enclosing the product and even labels applied to [convey] product information.’
Several factors must be considered when designing eco-friendly packaging, Brown explains: preserving and protecting products, transporting them, identifying them in-store, marketing them and their ease of use. The end result, he says, should not compromise any of these functions.
‘First, we consider if all the packaging components are necessary,’ says Brown, ‘such as the box that toothpaste tubes come in. Then we see if the packaging can be reconfigured, or reduced in weight,’ he says. ‘”Lightweighting” packaging needn’t mean using less material. Often you can stretch a product so it appears larger on-shelf, or introduce an interesting shape that grabs consumers’ attention.’
Graphics also play a role, disguising recycled materials, he adds. ‘We advise manufacturers to print directly on to packaging. If a plastic container has a paper label, it makes recycling difficult, as the two have to be separated.’
Waitrose is currently ‘in talks’ with Wrap over the Innovation Fund and developing Green packaging, says Nick Jones, assistant to general manager services, who oversees recycling issues. Packaging is a cost to retailers, so it’s in their interests to try to reduce it, he says.
Wrap chief executive Jennie Price agrees. ‘As well as achieving the primary aim of waste minimisation, [reduced packaging] will also help retailers reduce their production, storage and transportation costs, and improve their corporate social responsibility targets,’ she says.
But packaging is actually needed to protect many products, particularly at the premium end, says Jones. ‘Easter eggs, for example, need to have layers of packaging as they’re fragile. And luxury whisky brands require tough cardboard tubes to protect them. If a bottle broke, it would cost the manufacturer or retailer.’
Packaging is also needed to display items. If retailers removed the box from toothpaste, for example, the units wouldn’t stack, would take up more shelf space and are more likely to get damaged, he says. But he admits that a lot of packaging is wasteful.
Waitrose has a ‘few organic lines’ with biodegradable packaging and, along with Sainsbury’s, has experimented with packaging that composts on a greater scale, but ‘it didn’t perform’, says Jones. ‘It is better to recycle and re-use. Our Bags for Life [sturdy plastic carrier bags that are replaced free] are recycled and made into furniture, which we donate to schools. That’s a far better use of waste.’ The store is planning to introduce European-style cloth carrier bags, too.
Jones believes that supermarkets don’t have the clout to influence the giant global packing companies. But if the Innovation Fund succeeds in its aim of minimising supermarket packaging, it could be £8m well spent. And fewer trips to the recycling bins for consumers.