Is Britain drowning in packaging?

The wrapping that our food, mod-cons and medications come in is not ‘evil’ - it is a product of civilisation.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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Nobody likes packaging nowadays, especially not mainstream environmentalists. For Greenpeace International, toy companies such as Hasbro and Mattel, by using mixed tropical hardwoods in their cardboard containers, are guilty of depleting the rainforests of Indonesia, wiping out tigers, and worsening climate change. According to Friends of the Earth UK, Sainsbury’s supermarket deserved to be prosecuted last year for ‘excess packaging’ used around a joint of beef it sold in Lincolnshire.

A bunch of British celebrities have flocked to the cause of stamping out packaging, joining the saint of environmentalism, Sir Jonathon Porritt, in supporting the new Clean Up Britain lobby group. Its sights are set on the big firms – from fast-food restaurants and brewers to cigarette manufacturers – that are producing ‘the litter that scars Britain’s countryside’ (1).

Along with greens and celebrities, the Lib-Con coalition government also relentlessly targets packaging as a Bad Thing. This summer, UK environment secretary Caroline Spelman was reportedly planning to extend a voluntary code on packaging from food to children’s toys, and perhaps on to mobile phones and electrical goods like microwave ovens and toasters. The same report noted that Britain generates 29million tonnes of household waste every year, of which more than 20 per cent – six million tonnes – is made up of packaging. Of that six million tonnes of packaging, 30 per cent is estimated to come from toys, mobile phones, computers and other appliances.

British companies themselves want to reduce packaging. Last year, in Phase 2 of the so-called Courtauld Commitment, 29 major retailers and brand owners pledged that by 2012 they will:

  • cut the weight of packaging, increase recycling rates and increase the recycled content of all grocery packaging, with the aim of cutting its carbon impact by 10 per cent;
  • reduce UK household food and drink waste by four per cent;
  • reduce traditional grocery product and packaging waste in the grocery supply chain by five per cent – including both solid and liquid wastes.

Britain is not alone in its hatred for, and guilt about, packaging. In the Design For Good blog, run on America’s prestigious knowledge forum, one commentator says: ‘Product packaging is one of consumerism’s most toxic byproducts – transient, temporary, and lacking the vaguely utilitarian excuse for existence that the product it contains can claim. It requires energy to make, adds to shipping weight, and is often made of polymers that linger in landfills for thousands of years. Now, designers are turning to innovative materials and engineering to revolutionise the environmental impact of packaging.’

Today, most discussions on packaging focus on the need to minimise it (2). But for people interested in innovation, a better focus would be on what might be achieved with packaging.

Fewer problems, more benefits

The broadly conservationist approach to packaging is open to challenge. First, in England in 2009, industrial-sector waste – which includes all the packaging that surrounds the inputs that industry uses – amounted to 24.2million tonnes. Commercial-sector waste came to 23.8million tonnes. Between the financial year 2009/10 and the year July 2009 to June 2010, by contrast, the amount of waste collected from household sources in England was lower than each of these sectors: 23.6million tonnes. Those who attack waste, and packaging in particular, usually condemn it as one of the excesses of consumerism. They forget that in England, at least, the consumer dimension of waste is less than a third of the country’s overall tonnage.

Second, with all three kinds of waste, there has been a reduction in tonnage: as the number of firms in UK industry has fallen by more than 18 per cent since 2002/3, so industrial wastes have dropped by 13.4million tonnes, or 36 per cent. A similar fall in waste output per firm can be seen in the commercial sector. Despite the fact that the number of firms in UK commerce has risen by 12 per cent over the same period, the waste generated by commerce has also dropped – by 6.5million tonnes, or 21 per cent.

As for the household sector, over the five years to 2009/10 there was an average yearly decrease in the weight of waste of 1.6 per cent, though annual declines only emerged after 2006/7. The decline in household waste is striking, given that the number of people living in England is estimated to have risen from 50.11 million in mid-2004 to 51.81 million in mid-2009. Clearly the UK is already generating less waste per householder than it did five years ago.

Third, and most important, the functionalities of packaging in use are ignored whenever it is viewed simply as waste. Packs make products portable: they contain, inform, measure and pour. Packs preserve food, drink, toys and other products from wear and tear, health hazards and many other problems. Packs allow products to be electronically tagged for supply-chain management and for security. They are an essential part of modern civilisation. In the late nineteenth century, the rise of the pack for containing branded dry goods and for the retailing of these items was a key moment in the development of the US economy. We cannot, and should not try to, turn the clock back to an earlier era (3).

What packaging might do: the example of pharmaceuticals

The packaging of pharmaceuticals shows that clever packaging can be a force for progress. For decades the contraceptive pill has been available in calendar packs that tell the user when to take it. Now, however, electronic packaging can improve the efficacy of treatments, and also cut costs for those who hold budgets for healthcare.

The world market for pharmaceutical packaging, valued at $42 billion in 2008, is forecast to reach $68 billion by 2015. In the future, the market could be transformed by electronic ‘smart’ packs linking up to a growing number of health applications carried on mobile phones or on tablet computers. Together, electronic packs for medicines and ‘mHealth’ applications may help ensure that patients actually take all the medicines they are prescribed at the right time and in the right dosage.

Take Stora Enso, a €10 billion Scandinavian firm specialising in packaging, paper and wood products. It makes an electronic pack named Pharma Discrete Dosage Slider intelligent Wireless (DDSi WL). Here the carton board upon which the blisters that hold the tablets are based is coated with conductive ink. On the board also is a radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchip powered by a rechargeable battery. Each charge is good for several months. As each tablet is removed, near-field communications transmit data wirelessly to the health records of a doctor, pharmacist, healthcare provider, or relative. A beeper can sound to remind the patient to take a tablet, and a mobile phone can be used to display data, keep a diary, or send an SMS reminder to take the medicine (4).

Of course, the electronic packaging of medicines is a bit of a special case. Medicines are dear, so to add a proportionately modest increment to their cost by making their containers electronic, to improve efficacy with patients, makes sense. It may be a decade or more before the packaging of mainstream consumer goods, which are generally much cheaper than medicines, begins to receive the electronic treatment.

Nevertheless, the potentialities of packaging are clear. It’s time to stop dumping on packaging and stop exaggerating the damage it causes. Instead we should recognise its intrinsic merits.

James Woudhuysen will be speaking on packaging at the First International Conference on Smart Design, Nottingham Trent University, 22-24 November 2011. He is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation.

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Topics Politics


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