MARKETING PRODUCTS based on the sustainability of the packaging is a dangerous game that could just confuse shoppers. Have Vivid Water and Tetra Pak fallen into the trap with Water in a Box?
Little over 12 months ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers published a report on waste. The main conclusion was that sustainable packaging is a myth and “no longer relevant” as a term. The debate over good versus bad packaging has “moved on”, the authors noted, with more and more companies turning to life-cycle analysis (LCA) to determine environmental impacts.
It was music to the ears of those in the packaging sector who had long-argued that focusing on packaging alone in the sustainability debate is short-sighted and counterproductive.
As a PwC packaging expert, Maya Bankovich, explained at the time: “Companies are beginning to work together to ensure that the supply chain, rather than just the packaging, is sustainable. The educated stakeholders we spoke to understand the place packaging has in the supply chain and many are beginning to relent on the insistence for ‘greener’ packaging.”
The attitudes of consumers have also changed. Mintel research from February this year shows that consumers of all ages and socio-economic groups think a lot of packaging is superfluous and aren’t aware of its role in protecting perishable goods. In fact, just 25% agree that packaging can help reduce food waste. What’s more, under half (44%) will seek out recyclable packaging. Mintel’s senior food analyst, Emma Clifford, says this could be because of the recession or because people have “heightened expectations of recyclability”.
Such an expectation means that making claims in relation to “sustainable packaging” can be dangerous and confusing - and there have been many cases to prove this (think milk bags and compostable cups). There is the chance that Tesco shoppers are facing another.
Water in a Box is the brainchild of Tetra Pak and Vivid Water, which claim to have created a product for “busy water drinkers with an environmental conscience”. Vivid Water’s owner, John Lee, explains: “Water in cartons might be unusual in the UK, but when we presented the concept to consumers they really engaged with it. The paperboard used to make our cartons is recyclable, naturally renewable and sourced from responsibly managed forests. It is eco-conscious spring water that will allow people to quench their thirst more responsibly.”
The companies make a number of environmental and health declarations in their press release and on the new website. This includes a pretty damning assessment of packaging competitor PET, a plastic used for making soft drinks bottles. “Sadly plastic bottles are made from non- renewable resources and their greenhouse gas emissions are at least three times higher than that of our boxes,” the website suggests.
Neither Tetra Pak nor Vivid Water could offer any data to back these claims up (one of the first rules of avoiding greenwashing is: Know your data). They could hark back to LCA studies in 2008 by WRAP, which compared different containers for milk and showed the footprint for cartons to be lower than that for PET. But it is far from black and white and there are plenty of waste experts who have been left confused by the way in which the product is being marketed. The case shows the complexities of LCA and how it can end up confusing customers. “It’s really difficult to compare packaging materials,” explains Gillian Garside-Wight, the packaging technology director at Your Packaging Partner, “and that’s certainly the case with Tetra Paks and PET – it’s an ambiguous comparison. They both have benefits, so it’s very difficult to compare one with the other” on environmental grounds.
Jane Bickerstaffe, the director of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, says that at the generic level LCAs “don’t give any useful answers” because a lot of the data is unavailable and average data can skew the findings. Jenni Donato, a packaging design expert with the environmental consultants Ricardo-AEA, also says that LCAs of packaging are never easy, and they have to be “very carefully designed and delivered”.
All this makes turning the theoretical promise of an LCA into a practical reality very difficult – especially in the world of packaging. This is a place where the best environmental solution can end up being the worst. Jugit milk bags were once a case in point: though loved by Sainsbury’s customers, Waitrose shoppers didn’t buy in to the concept – regardless of the 75% savings in material being used – which left milk turning sour and any environmental gains undone.
Whether Water in a Box is a concept the public will like remains to be seen. But there could be another issue for those that do buy it: how to recycle it. The Mintel research showed that UK consumers expect much when it comes to the recyclability of their products and while Tetra Paks are “100% recyclable”, this is very different from 100% of the cartons actually being recycled.
Collection services for food and drink cartons are improving, but historically they have been peripheral in the UK, with materials sent for recovery in Scandinavia. Given that 39% of UK local authorities collect beverage cartons at the kerbside, compared with 93% that collect plastic bottles, some experts feel Water in a Box might have picked a fight with the wrong material.
“In terms of PET recycling it is churlish to be too critical as the figures are increasingly impressive,” says Stuart Banham, a senior design manager at the brand agency 1HQ. “With more than 60 billion bottles recycled across Europe in the last year alone, that’s over 52% of all the available post- consumer PET bottles. It is unclear whether the infrastructure exists to support the recycling of Tetrapak cartons on a similar scale,” he adds.
Donato tends to agree. “Fair enough that it is a competitive market, but trying to get a leg up in the market by stepping on a competitor is risky, especially when the competitor is outperforming you on the criterion in question.”
Practicality will often win over potential – especially when consumers are either confused or not so bothered about ethical issues. The introduction of compostable plastics into the bottled drinks market is a case in point, says Donato. “Companies often reverted back to PET when the materials were starting to contaminate recycling streams, admitting that PET was the only material with an acceptable collection infrastructure and therefore high recycling rate.”
There are plenty of great materials out there with low environmental impacts, but which aren’t collected – yet.
Things could be about to change for cartons. In Stainland, West Yorkshire, last month the minister for resource management officially opened the country’s only dedicated beverage carton recycling facility. With a 25,000-tonne capacity, the new plant is expected to boost recycling rates dramatically. If it does, then Water in a Box could be in a better position to out- green PET. However, that doesn’t mean it should try.
“Our research has shown that all materials have environmental pros and cons” so “none has a monopoly of environmental benefit”, says Bickerstaffe. “Consumers tend to be given far more negative than positive information about packaging. If one material or pack type criticises another it just reinforces the commonly held view that packaging is bad. It’s little wonder that consumers are confused when companies make random single-issue claims about the sustainability of their packaging.”
This is adapted from a feature originally published by 2degreesnetwork.com on September 3rd 2013.