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Packaging Recycling in the U.K.: Perceptions and Reality

Packaging often gets a bad press; are the assumptions warranted?

September 10, 2013
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Packaging often gets a bad press. As consumers we are made to feel that we should be doing more to recycle it, and it is generally believed that businesses should be making greater efforts to cut down on the amount of it that they produce.

Are these perceptions fair? I thought it would be interesting to find out, by examining the situation here in the United Kingdom.

>PACKAGING IN PERSPECTIVE

A report released in 2008 by independent experts the Advisory Committee on Packaging, entitled Packaging In Perspective, threw up some very interesting statistics. According to the report:

  • Packaging comprises less than 3 percent of all solid waste that is sent to landfill
  • 60 percent of packaging is recycled
  • In the 10 years before 2008 businesses spent £1.5 billion ($2.3 billion) and doubled the amount of packaging recovered and recycled, from three to six million tonnes

The importance of recycling has further entered the public consciousness over the last several years, and there is now an even greater demand than five years ago for producers to be "green friendly." In fact, U.K. packaging recycling targets were recently increased.

>MODEST ENERGY CONSUMPTION

One of the reasons we recycle is to conserve energy. 

The amount of energy required to produce the packaging used by an average British household is however surprisingly small. It is estimated that the average British household of 2.3 people purchases three tonnes of goods annually, which takes 110 gigajoules of energy to produce. 

The safe transportation of these goods requires just 200 kilograms of packaging, which takes an estimated seven gigajoules of energy to produce. This is a very modest amount of energy in relation to the large quantity of goods that the packaging helps to safely transport, from factory and farm to shop, and then to our home.

>A FINANCIAL INCENTIVE TO REDUCE PACKAGING

It is in the financial interests of manufacturers to reduce the amount of packaging they produce, because excess packaging is a cost that cuts into a business’s bottom line. 

Companies that proactively pursue green business models by cutting down on environmental waste are also viewed more favourably by consumers — and according to one recent survey, corporate social responsibility generates significantly more positive media coverage than comparable programs without the CSR hook.

Regardless of the financial incentives, manufacturers are compelled by law to minimise the amount of packaging produced. The 1994 European Union Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste (Directive 94/62/EC — legislation revised in 2004 and again in 2005 — set clear targets on the recycling of packaging waste.
Companies face large financial penalties for failing to comply with the Directive — in 2009, for example, two British companies were fined in excess of £200,000 ($307,000) for breaching it.

>MOVING TOWARDS SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING

In addition to reducing the overall amount of packaging produced, there are a number of things that businesses can do to make their packaging more sustainable. 

Packaging manufacturers can try to increase the recycled content of their products — aiming to use a minimum of 75 percent recycled material in cardboard boxes, for example. Heavy metals should not be used in sustainable packaging, as they pollute the environment.

Packaging should be biodegradable whenever possible, so that if it does end up in landfill or polluting the landscape, it will break down with minimal impact on the environment. Ideally packaging should be compostable, a status achieved by 90 percent biodegradation within 90 days, as demanded by European standard EN13432.

Manufacturers should include packaging recycling symbols on their products, to allow consumers to make informed purchasing decisions and also to help them when they come to dispose of their waste.

As consumers actually prefer sustainable products and are demanding less packaging, implementing green business practices is not only good for the environment, but also for a company’s reputation and bottom line.

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