Get talking: Plastics in crisis – a self-made situation

Materials World magazine
1 May 2018

Ian Davis, Chairman of the Institute’s Packaging Society speaks about how the evolution of supermarkets helped to create the plastics debacle, and the role they can play to set it right. 

As Chairman of the Institute’s Packaging Society, I have an unusual background – I am a papermaker. I started out in the industry in September 1973, nearly 45 years ago. Having also been Chairman of the Paper Industry Technical Association, in the 1990s, I have perhaps seen the evolution to the current situation from a different angle to most packaging members.

The paper industry in the 1970s was a time of great innovation and invention. Cartonboard for packaging was the primary material for all goods, food or otherwise. In the UK, we had six large mills manufacturing cartonboard and coated white-lined chipboards. We were capable of being self-sufficient for our packaging needs. Overall, we had over 150 mills in the UK – now we have fewer than 40.

The gamechanger

So, what changed? In a word – supermarkets. Today we can’t imagine a life without the big players like Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Lidl, Aldi, and Marks & Spencer to name but a few. They have become so dominant in our lives because they deliver what we, as consumers, demand – quality products at a low price.

When supermarkets were first established in the USA, they were called re-sellers, because that is what they did. They purchased goods from suppliers using volume for discounts, and then re-sold the goods in their own outlets. From this, they started to supply their own label goods, which were cheaper.

The growth of different supermarket chains produced competition, which in turn meant price-cutting to retain or grow market share. Consumers became savvier and favoured those chains with the best value. Marketing and advertising focussed on these factors, knowing that the public were looking for a good deal.

If you talk to anyone supplying the supermarkets for the past 40 years, they will tell you that the supermarkets were constantly driving prices down, forcing manufacturers and suppliers to find the lowest cost materials for packaging.

This is how we entered the plastic packaging revolution, and left most of the cartonboard and chipboard manufacturing in the UK behind. The first phase saw the closure of some of the biggest cartonboard mills because power and labour were the most expensive in Europe. The ones supplying packaging materials for the next 15 years were mainly Scandinavian. Why? Because most of the mills were integrated, producing their own pulp. Also, power and labour costs were lower than in the UK as they had their own hydro-power schemes for each mill.

With the pressure on reducing prices, the power of the supermarket buyers meant that suppliers had to reduce the costs of their packaging to remain competitive. Plastic materials had developed rapidly and were offered at lower cost with better performance for many applications. My mill was producing barrier-treated cartonboard (100% recyclable) that was fit for purpose and was sufficient for packaging and protecting the food products. However, a polymer PE-coated alternative, or a plastic tray, was offered at a lower price with barrier properties far greater than was needed. The buyers were convinced that for a lower price, they could offer better packaging performance and that was how the packaging evolved.

The litterbugs

Today, we have PET, plastic and metal packaging for beverages. Arguably, this is where we find a lot of the problems such as littering. Unfortunately, we are a society that will discard packaging without a second thought. We are into second-generation litterbugs, so we have parents and children with the same mind-set. I know this is a generalisation, and many of us dispose of our litter responsibly, but far too many don’t.

How do we repair the damage? Firstly, consumers must recognise the value of the packaging. Initially, as a vehicle to contain and protect their products, whether it is beverages, food products or white goods for example. The secondary value is being a resource that can be recycled.

The Institute’s Packaging Society has been promoting and supporting initiatives for deposit schemes for beverage containers. The government has just announced that it is introducing such a scheme, like the pilot taking place in Scotland. This is a good first step and hopefully, consumers will start to recognise that their empty bottle or can has value.

There are many countries in Europe who already have these schemes, such as Norway and Germany. What do you notice when visiting them? There is less litter and no discarded bottles or cans on the roadsides, the pavements or in towns.

There are other areas in the spotlight, too. The media has picked up on cotton buds, plastic straws, and microbeads. These materials perform their function very well, but again, it is how we as consumers dispose of them after use. That is the cause of our problems.

There are some areas where we can change and part of the future is to look at areas where we may be using too much packaging. Each situation must be assessed to see whether it is performing a significant function, or, is it for aesthetics to make it look bigger or more attractive? 

Within the Packaging Society, we have had a lot of discussion about what we believe are the key issues. We have come up with a top five that we would like to see addressed to help develop packaging in a planet friendly way.