Increasing efficiency and sustainability in packaging

Materials World magazine
2 Aug 2016

With increasing numbers of manufacturers around Europe looking for new ways to maximise their efficiency and increase sustainability in their supply chains, Fiacre O’Donnell looks at the importance of keeping green.

When it comes to the creation of a more environmentally responsible future, manufacturers have a vital role to play. In the EU, for example, statistics from Eurostat suggest the sector is responsible for around a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. As industrial production in Europe is undergoing relatively steady growth and has been for the last 13 years, there is a danger of this figure rising in the long term. With this in mind, reducing the industry’s carbon footprint as we move into 2017 has to be on the agenda for all businesses, large and small.

There are a number of international governmental commitments that encourage companies around the world to prioritise sustainability initiatives. One of the most celebrated is the most recent global climate conference in Paris (COP21), which was seen as a major step forward by many environmentalists. In April 2016, following the talks, almost 200 countries signed the first universal, legally binding global climate agreement. The deal requires all signatories to undertake rapid reductions in greenhouse gases in accordance with the best available science. This is certainly a move in the right direction. However, it should be noted that the agreement doesn’t come into force until 2020. During this time, all manufacturers should prepare themselves for increased demand for greener products and processes.

Unfortunately, a recently released report hints at a worrying trend in Europe. According to the EU’s own estimates, CO2 emissions in most EU member states actually rose slightly last year. This, in turn, meant that emissions across the EU increased by almost 1% when compared with 2014.

Interestingly, the same report suggested that the UK reduced its CO2 emissions in the same period. This isn’t too surprising – over the last 30 years Britain has become a key global player in the fight for a low-carbon and environmentally friendly future. The introduction of the Climate Change Act in 1998 set out clear steps to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases through a number of legally binding targets, and now, we’re well on our way to meeting the target of phasing out coal-generated electricity by 2025. In fact, in May this year, Britain reached a new record, generating no electricity from coal for the first time since the 19th Century.

There are also arguments that suggest the UK has had a significant role in shaping the ongoing green revolution in Europe. The all-party Environmental Audit Committee claims that the UK has been a key player in supporting the EU’s role as an international environmental negotiator.

It’s clear that, in the run up to 2020 when the COP21 agreement will come into effect, the UK still has a role inspiring other countries to follow its lead. So, how will Britain’s manufacturing sector play its part in this quest for a low-carbon future? 

Manufacturing the green revolution

The UK Government has taken it upon itself to encourage responsible manufacturing over recent years. The Industrial Decarbonisation and Energy Efficiency roadmaps, for example, outlined goals for each producing sector to meet in a bid to limit greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. 

In the last decade, the sector’s continued focus on sustainability has become ever more apparent. This year, thanks to the announcement of Europe’s long-awaited circular economy (CE) package, there was strong government encouragement for manufacturers to become more environmentally responsible. This was highlighted as a key area for development with the targets set out by the European Commission providing a clear route towards a more cyclical future.

All industries operating within the UK’s circular economy were set some ambitious but achievable objectives to work towards. These included getting to the stage where we are collectively recycling a minimum of 65% of municipal waste and 75% of overall packaging material within the next 15 years. These targets may seem daunting at first, but the most recent figures from the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) paint a positive picture, suggesting that the UK is well on its way to meeting these goals. The latest annual waste report actually shows that 72.7% of packaging waste in Britain is already currently being either recycled or recovered.

For those of us working with glass, the benchmark was set higher, at 75% by 2025 and 85% by 2030. The sector is well on its way to hitting its goals – according to FEVE (The European Container Glass Federation), the current level in the UK is at around 68%. 

This is, of course, fantastic, and shows how seriously the glass industry, which is already working with a green and infinitely recyclable material, is taking its Corporate Social Responsibility commitments. However, other manufacturing sectors that might not work with such an environmentally friendly material could need to turn to other areas of their operations to increase sustainability.

Increasing operational sustainability

There is great potential for UK manufacturers to increase levels of sustainability by maximising efficiency in this area. In Europe, manufacturers have made great progress towards streamlining the supply chain to further reduce carbon emissions. In the glass sector, for instance, methods such as recycling materials and reducing container weight have simplified the product’s route to market. This has a knock-on effect, reducing fuel consumption in transit, cutting production costs and decreasing the overall environmental impact. The UK has been very successful in implementing this approach, particularly through WRAP projects.

Another option for manufacturers looking to increase sustainability throughout their supply chain is to reduce their reliance on HGVs. By making greater use of international rail networks instead, companies can significantly reduce annual mileage, decreasing associated emissions and taking vehicles off the road. Consolidating operations can also prove to be an efficient carbon reduction method. Housing the manufacturing, bottling, warehousing and logistics offerings on one purpose-built site considerably reduces the carbon footprint of a supply chain. 

Carbon offsetting initiatives are another good way to reduce the CO2 emissions in manufacturing. These are schemes that cut carbon in one area of a business’s operations to compensate for those released in another, all with the ultimate aim of minimising the organisation’s environmental footprint. 

The UK is currently paving the way for a greener future and is inspiring others to do the same. CO2 emissions from UK manufacturing, including packagers, have been on a downward trend for more than 17 years. This is because of several factors, but the introduction of more efficient processes and products is certainly one of them.

However, the Eurostat figures show that there is still much work to be done. Now, in the run up to 2020, manufacturers can continue supporting global sustainability efforts by keeping a focus on the development of innovative carbon reduction initiatives.

By employing more environmentally responsible production processes and increasing levels of sustainability throughout their supply chains, the industry can play a key role in helping the UK and others meet their COP21 targets.

Making it work at Encirc

As a result of consolidating operations at Encirc, the total carbon footprint of a 460g bottle of wine for all life cycle stages, including filling, is just 0.58kg CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per tonne of product – 32% less than the European equivalent.

Encirc also offers consolidated loading, which combines beverages from multiple producers into a single truck delivery to various retail partners, shortening the supply chain, reducing carbon emissions and saving fuel. For one customer, this has saved 30x250 mile journeys a week.

Carbon offsetting initiatives can also help reduce the impact of emissions from manufacturing. The Encirc Trees for Me campaign saw the creation of an onsite nature walk and the planting of 1,500 saplings – each of which is able to counteract one tonne of carbon in its lifetime. 

Businesses can look at their products and internal processes to see where carbon can be saved. For example, Encirc has reduced the average weight of its bottles by 15% over the past nine years, saving over 55,000 litres of water and more than 60 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. 

We’ve also modified our warehouse to cater for a greater number of tall pallets. This has increased the capacity of each pallet from 900 to 1,600 bottles, reducing the number of pallets needed and cutting plastic packaging requirements by 146,000kg, as well as decreasing the material sent to landfill.

Fiacre O’Donnell is the Head Of Strategic Development at Encirc, a UK-based glass manufacturer.