Minimizing packaging waste is a clear goal for Europen’s members and all food processing firms, but shifting attitudes mean weight reduction is only the beginning.
Executives from Coca-Cola Hellenic and Unilever debated packaging’s future at the 20th anniversary of Europen [the European Organization for Packaging and the Environment] in Brussels, where chairman Martin Reynolds told FoodProductionDaily.com why lighter isn’t always better:
“No company will pay for what it doesn’t need. So it won’t pay for overweight packaging, but if it’s got underweight packaging and packs burst and split, then we’ve got a problem on our hands.”
Money is the ‘one reason’
The Europen chairman’s view echoed those expressed by the conference panellists.
Coca-Cola Hellenic’s Sabine Strnad, director of resource recovery, said “there is one pure reason why [sustainability] is so strongly implemented, and it is cost-saving.
“Whatever we do in terms of prevention, in reducing packaging through the whole value chain, is reducing, on the one hand, the cost factor; and on the other hand, the CO2 footprint which is indirectly a cost factor.
“So in this respect there's a pure interest of all industry and all companies to do this actively, and follow up on a regular basis."
For Europen’s Reynolds, who is also chairman of the European Metal Packaging Association, “it’s not one or the other” for food firms. “If you use less energy, less material and do things faster, you will reduce your carbon footprint, use fewer resources, and things will cost less.”
“One of the interventions from the floor said packaging saves approximately 10 times in terms of waste-saving what’s in the product. Particularly if you’re taking [food] products,” he said.
When questioned about how much further technology can pare down food packaging, Reynolds said that while “we are close to the optimum”, firms had started to change their approach to packaging weight.
‘Integrated design’ is next frontier
Economics would never allow packaging cutbacks to go too far, said Europen’s chairman, given that inadequate packaging would result in tenfold damage to the food product.
“If you were to pare down packaging to the point that you lose the product, you’ve got some packaging wasted at the end, but you’ve [also] got 10 times that in terms of the product waste.
“No company will pay for what it doesn’t need. So it won’t pay for overweight packaging, but if it’s got underweight packaging and packs burst and split, then we’ve got a problem on our hands.
“We are close to the optimum, but where companies are changing – [Louis Lindenberg, a Europen panellist and Unilever packaging sustainability director] said it’s actually about integrated design. So it’s using the minimum of input, and then getting the maximum use of materials at the end.”
‘Packaging is the solution,’ not the problem
The Europen chairman echoed the words of MD Virginia Janssens who said in her conference closing remarks that packaging had shaken off its reputation as pure waste, and it “should be regarded as part of the solution, and as a net contributor to achieving the broad sustainability goals of resource optimisation and waste minimisation”.
Reynolds said it was “becoming increasingly accepted” that packaging materials, after their first use, “can be used again to produce new materials, new products or used for energy recovery”.
“10 years or so ago, there was a whole function on packaging and packaging waste, and the way statistics were monitored by the commission, says that any packaging company when they go to work, go to work to produce waste.”
This view is now considered incorrect, he said. “Nobody buys packaging unless there’s a product to be packed. We’ve moved on. Even the NGO panellist [Pieter De Pous, European Environmental Bureau] acknowledged that – albeit a little reluctantly.”