Do laws pack clout?

With sustainable packaging regulations set for an update, Angus Montgomery discovers that many packaging designers feel that current legislation is ’passive’ and doesn’t take their needs into account

Last week saw the publication of two Government documents that could influence legislation on sustainable packaging designs over the coming years.
And while packaging designers have on the whole welcomed current and planned laws, there are suggestions that regulations on sustainable packaging are ’passive’ and not targeted at, or responsive to, designers.

On 14 June the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released both the Government Waste Policy Review and the Advisory Committee on Packaging’s Annual Report 2010/11.

The key points for designers from the Waste Policy Review are the call for ’clearer language’ in the EU Packaging Directive, which is due to be reviewed in 2014, and support for the Courtauld Commitment a voluntary agreement between waste reduction body Wrap and retailers including Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

The report claims the Courtauld Commitment launched in 2005 has so far avoided £1.8bn in food and packaging waste, while Asda says it has saved more than £10m in the past 18 months through packaging education schemes. Following its efforts in food retailing, Wrap is now leading a working group which will look at reducing packaging in the toy sector.

The ACP report makes a number of suggestions on packaging reduction, including that there should be a specific amount of recycled content in packaging.

Probably the most interesting recommendation for designers focuses on the client briefing process, and says, ’Manufacturers and retailers should specify the function they want packaging to perform rather than specifying the exact nature of the packaging. This will encourage designers to innovate.’ In other words, clients should not be allowed to restrict designers in their choice of packaging materials.

Clients expect to be sustainable – but they still want to shift units

Jim Orkney, Kinneir Dufort

As well as suggesting changes to packaging legislation, both reports are at pains to mention the good work that is being done to reduce packaging in the UK, with the Waste Policy Review reeling out its range of figures to show how much packaging has been reduced. The ACP report tabulates statistics that show the UK is outperforming EU targets on packaging reduction and also states that the UK is the only country in the EU where the amount of packaging per person has stayed the same over the past ten years, despite economic growth in Portugal there has been a 61kg increase.

This is all good news, but the feeling among package designers is that while legislation on packaging reduction is generally a good thing, there is little impetus for designers to take much notice of it and little effort by Government to engage designers in the sustainable packaging discourse.

Jim Orkney, managing director of Bristol-based Kinneir Dufort, which counts structural packaging among its specialisms, says that much of the responsibility for sustainability in packaging projects currently lies with the client they are the ones legally responsible for meeting the regulations. He says, ’Clients are generally the ones who know about the legal niceties and will consider them in the brief.’

Orkney also believes that, regardless of legislation, good designers are sustainable as a matter of course. He says, ’You should always have a philosophy of doing as much as you can with as little as possible. It’s sensible not to be wasteful, this is something that should be drummed into designers.’

He also points out that sustainability and waste reduction make commercial sense for clients backed up by Asda’s trumpeting of its £10m saving through packaging reduction in the Waste Policy Review. Orkney says, ’Clients expect to be sustainable and their customers expect it of them, but they still want to shift units.’

Orkney explains that there are occasional compromises to make for example, a ’sustainable’ material may have a large carbon footprint in production. He says, ’In many ways, it is difficult to process these parameters in a logical manner.’ He also points out thatin some cases specifying environmentally friendly but expensive materials could backfire from a sustainability point of view. ’If you use a material that’s sustainable but too expensive, then the product could cost too much for the consumer and the client might be less successful,’ he says.

Antony Smith, account design director at Leicestershire-based Stocks Taylor Benson, agrees that there is a general trend for clients to think sustainably. He says, ’It does vary by client, but there is definitely an increased interest across the board in exploring the possibilities of less packaging or more environmentally friendly materials.’

He adds, ’Turning to the latest recommendations, I believe there is a lot of sense in the client specifying function rather than the exact nature of the packaging. I am less sure about quotas for recycled material. The Green agenda is rather complex and, unfortunately, there’s a tendency to seek refuge in simple targets, rather than thinking through the wider issues.’

Silas Amos, creative director at Jones Knowles Ritchie, describes the Government’s approach to bringing designers into the legislative process as ’slightly passive’, saying, ’Wouldn’t it be great if Government could give this information to us simply if, for example, every major group had a point of contact at Government to talk about this sort of thing?’ Backing up Amos’ point is the fact that the ACP, which claims to comprise ’sector representatives of each element of the supply chain’, features not a single pack designer.

Amos does, however, welcome the concept of regulation, saying, ’There is an opportunity here for a really savvy agency to bone up on legislation and take a lead.’

UK packaging use figures

  • 24.1% of plastic packaging was recycled in 2010 (compared to EU directive target of 22.5%)
  • 81.9% of paper and board packaging was recycled in 2010 (compared to EU directive target of 60%)
  • There was a 1kg increase in packaging use per person from 1998 to 2007 (compared to 8kg in France, 50kg in Finland and 61kg in Portugal)
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