Q&A with plastics packaging expert Bruce Margetts

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2017

Natalie Daniels talks to Bruce Margetts about his career in plastics packaging, the challenges facing the industry and why Brexit might not be a bad thing for it.

Tell us about your background.

I studied an applied physics and electronics degree at the University of Durham, UK. After university, I saw an advert for an international graduate trainee job with a plastics packaging company and spent two years working in project and production engineering in the UK, Spain and France. My first works manager assigned me the task of applying my knowledge of science to the pressure thermalforming process, which at the time was considered a black art. I started to understand the complexity and challenges of processing plastics – it gave me a great underlying knowledge of plastics and packaging as we were making high volume products, including plastic cups and yoghurt pots. I then moved to production and factory management for eight years with Thermos. Following this, I was recruited as operations manager for the global plastics, packaging and containers manufacturer, RPC, working in a variety of coversion technologies for packaging. The best part of my working life has been in plastic packaging, injection and blow moulding and thermoforming technologies.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

It requires looking after the business – everything from the technical and production challenges to dealing with things at the last minute. That is the beauty of the job, you don't know what is going happen from day-to-day, whether it’s a customer-focused day or about trying to move production forward and generate new projects. 

Are there any particular areas in plastics packaging that require more R&D?

I think the ability to use our resources as effectively as possible. Most of the packaging I am involved in is retail related. At the end of the day, the packaging is a means of getting a product to a consumer with minimal waste. Through innovative design and technology, we have got to use the best products to reduce waste – it works as a means to an end, not the end in itself. We do a good job of that through light-weighting but we are now reaching its limits. We have to find other ways to achieve it. We can't ignore end-of-life and we shouldn't, but at the same time, optimising end-of-life at the expense of the packaging itself is more damaging. 

What are you doing to drive recycling rates?

I think the priority is to focus on end-of-life and avoid packaging going to landfill, rather than necessarily recycling in itself. We should be wary of putting more resource into recycling than the value of borrowing the energy from oil in the first place. 

I think we under-use energy from waste, where plastics have a great value and can return energy back into the world. At the same time, we have to be conscious when we design and optimise a product as best we can and recognise that our customers have needs and poor packaging will stop a product selling quicker than almost anything else. We have to be mindful that it functions well and is safe for the consumer to allow the product to sell – this is also just as valuable as end of life. 

Does the UK need to be doing more to ensure energy from waste reaches its full potential? how can it be improved upon?

Energy and its generation are essential in the modern world. There is only so much space we can use for waste. Technological advances mean that the cleanliness and effectiveness of energy recovery from waste seem to make environmental, as well as common sense, and it should be an essential component of future energy plans. Packaging should be designed for the greatest benefit to the product it serves. Sometimes this is at conflict with its post-life state and the cost of recycling it because of material segregation and cleanliness, which don’t make economic sense with techniques currently available. The UK should follow the environmentally conscious Scandinavians and the space-constrained Japanese in reclaiming the valuable energy embedded within the packaging materials.

Do design and functionality factors come before end-of-life and sustainability?

The whole supply chain is very aware of the need for sustainability. There is a need for balance to get innovation, you need fresh ideas. Fresh ideas require an element of experimentation – these are not always as successful as they could be. We should absolutely not stifle creativity and new ideas, recognising that sometimes they might not always work. However, we have to recognise the value of experience when it comes to cost and whether it will benefit the supply chain. By selecting a different material and avoiding a strong colour, you could improve the recyclability of this material. It is about recognising the design criteria and figuring out what is most important. If having asked those questions, there is still a positive reason for making those changes then fine, but it is important to make sure those questions are answered to minimise environmental impact. 

Are there any particular packaging designs that have stood out for creativity and innovation?

The Dairy Roadmap did a fantastic job at trying to optimise products designed for the supply chain – it took all parts of the product and considered them together as opposed to individually. Through very clever design, the weight of the HD bottles were minimised and reduction in the colour density of the bottle cap allowed the whole package to come back into the material chain. It really looked at the end-of-life and did the best to minimise it and it has made tremendous progress. The same can be said for a lot of bottled beverages, which generally is the flagship of creativity. What is frustrating is when you see litter around. The ability to recycle bottles, which is one of the most prevalent forms of packaging, has been established. 

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the packaging industry? 

I think it comes down to the customer perception. When someone has consumed a product, whether
it is food or a personal care product, it is then about what you do with the packaging. It’s important to change customers’ perception by making recycling packaging a positive decision rather than a burden. I do get frustrated with over-packaging, when items such as toys and homeware would benefit from something smaller. 

Since the decision to leave the EU, have you noticed any immediate changes in the industry, and what can we expect to see in the future?

Without a shadow of a doubt, there is uncertainty and that was to be expected. There is an element of caution when it comes to investment to not over-invest until we actually know how things are going to pan out. It has been really encouraging to see the minor impact on retail sales, which is a big driver for the packaging industry. Packaging essentially follows the product, so where the product is sold becomes an important factor. Most packaging tends to be made relatively local to where the product is filled, as it is the most economical way of doing it. What will be fascinating is whether it will change the dynamics of importing and exporting food and other products into the UK. From a packaging point of view, the UK will require as much product to be consumed, whether it is food, oil or paint as it did inside Europe. Consumers are not changing because of the political situation. The impact will be driven by certain companies’ supply to UK markets rather than anything else. We could even see the benefit of returning manufactured products back into the UK because we have a massive market here and have one of the biggest economies in the world – with a consumer habit that reflects that. 

Is the skills shortage in plastics packaging an area for concern right now?

This industry is facing a big challenge in terms of skills. We have to recognise that we have got to do some self-help about this. With more than 80,000 people involved in the plastics industry, it is a highly valued industry and we have to change people’s perception of this area. I think there is a barrier obscuring what an interesting design led, technical and beneficial career this can be.

What steps would you like to see taken in the plastics packaging industry over the next few years?

Looking forward, the packaging industry faces many of the same challenges as most other industries – how to deliver more for less. As well as its primary tasks of containing and protecting the product, it is an essential marketing tool. Minimising weight is taken into account for both cost and environmental reasons, but often the packaging is optimised in isolation rather than as part of the total delivered product cost. Ease of use in a complex and changing demographic should always be a prime consideration worthy of further development and focus. Portion control and smaller average households are drivers towards ever more units of packaging being used – doing this effectively is a must. 

We must ensure that the design and manufacturing skills within our industry allow us to answer these challenges and take active steps to develop, nurture and maintain these skills. The ability of the pack to inform and even interact with the consumer is also an area for future development. For example, a colour marker showing that a product has been out of the fridge too long, or just open too long and therefore maybe unsafe to eat or drink. 

Bruce Margetts is Managing Director of BERICAP, based in the UK, and has more than 15 years experience in the packaging industry.