Unlocking ingenuity at the European Packaging Summit

Packaging Professional magazine
15 Nov 2010

Delegates at the European Packaging Summit, held in London, UK, on 5-6 October, converged to assess the state of the packaging industry. Michael Bennett presents the discussions on regulations, the economic situation and how a fundamental shift in thinking is needed.

With the recession slashing consumer spending and impacting on the packaging industry, it made sense for an economist to provide the first keynote speech at the European Packaging Summit, held on 5-6 October in London, UK. Oliver Sparrow, Director of the Challenge Network, based in Maidenhead, UK, discussed the changing world and ‘very long-term drivers of change’, such as demographics, and the scarcity, stability and security of resources.

He also noted the emergence of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries. ‘The world workforce doubled in the 1980s, and it didn't double here,’ he said. ‘All our standards of living are going to be benchmarked by the fact that other people around the world are going to be able to do what we do much cheaper.’

He suggested that the innovation required to keep UK businesses at the forefront economically and environmentally is often stifled by internal battles. ‘Nobody is saying we are bad at R&D – we are just bad at making it happen.’

According to Sparrow, companies should be more flexible and free up time to allow ingenuity to blossom organically rather than tying staff down with performance indicators. ‘Internal R&D and academia don't produce anywhere near as many innovative ideas as employees, business partners and customers because they are divorced from the where, why, how and wherefore.’

Risky business

Throughout the event, a theme emerged when it came to discussing barriers to innovation. ‘It is dangerous to say, “Oh, we wouldn’t have done that, they were wrong”’ said Robert Monaghan, Director of London-based design agency Air Innovation.

Instead, companies should be more prepared to take a risk on a design and try it out on the market rather than waiting for somebody else to take the chance. He cited the Kenco refill pouch as an idea – it is claimed to be 97% lighter than the glass jars, results in less waste for landfill and is said to have had a positive impact on consumer mentalities. ‘No new product should go out of the door unless it does something better than a previous one,’ Monaghan argued.

Cees Van Dongen, Brussels-based Director of Sustainable Packaging Solutions at Coca-Cola, agreed that manufacturers need to do more than obsess over materials. ‘Recycled content [alone] will not sway any consumers to buy your product – on the other hand, not doing it means you are not making use of the recycled market.’

Van Dongen also claimed that the quality of recyclate has declined over the past 10 years, making it difficult to achieve a clear plastic bottle, and that this is partly because recyclers are rooted in a waste, not food management culture. ‘I don’t mean to insult them but it makes our lives difficult. We [also] have to ensure that the bottles we put in market are 100% recyclable. There needs to be a change in the mechanics of bottle collection, and a consolidation process across the recycling industry.’ He went on to suggest that manufacturers should be allowed to collect their own bottles to the proportion with which they are on the market.

Legislate ends not means

Many of the manufacturers at the event spent time listing the measures they have been taking to meet regulations, but Sparrow claimed that striving to meet them was not necessarily the best way of solving sustainability issues. ‘The thing that is really striking about highly regulated industries is that they are less and less able to make decisions based on clear economics. They have to rely on expectations of what policy will be in five years’ time.’

He added that what is needed is more sensible legislation. ‘What we need is regulation by dialogue that is less concerned with how to do something, but instead with what needs to be done. Europe has been extremely prescriptive about the means on the whole and very vague and generic about goals. They need to be much more concrete about targets and let ingenuity solve them.’

If more dialogue is the key to improving sustainable packaging, Oliver Campbell, Senior Manager of Global Packaging Engineering at Dell, pointed out that it is now easier than ever for consumers to communicate with companies. ‘People on the internet are not inhibited to criticise us.’

He also added that companies no longer had to be in opposition to non governmental organisations. ‘For a long time we resisted what they had to say, and that was wrong. That doesn’t mean we agree with everything they say, but we need to be working together. They are very influential and developing those relationships is crucial to our success. The last thing we want is to put something out there and think that it is green and they tell us it is not.’

Earth: A packaging graveyard?

After several positive case studies of sustainable packaging, the second keynote lecture by Michael Braungart, co-author of ‘Cradle to Cradle’, offered a bleak assessment of the situation. ‘Our planet looks terrible because people don’t handle materials properly. We are not too many – we are just stupid and we make too much waste,’ he said, claiming that a fundamental shift in thinking was needed to reduce waste before Earth becomes a ‘packaging graveyard’.

Braungart warned that though many methods and means of making packaging more sustainable areavailable, manufacturers are fixated on cost efficiency. He added that instead of making a real difference, many companies choose to cultivate an appearance of sustainability. ‘People don’t change things anymore, they only pretend to do so. Ecologism is like socialism – an illusion.’

Echoing Sparrow’s earlier point, Braungart said that manufacturers needed to do more than just meet regulations, and he challenged them to get past trying to make packaging ‘less bad’, pursue a more positive agenda and look to nature for inspiration for more ‘ecologically intelligent’ designs. ‘Every waste is food. Nature doesn’t make waste, only us. Don’t wait for the Government – it’s up to you.’

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