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Packaging: what to watch for in 2023

Bans, data disclosures, pressure on paper and a scalable reuse system. It’s going to be a chaotic (and potentially crucial) year, says David Burrows.

Footprint has just launched its 2023 packaging report – Reduce, reuse, recycle: why foodservice companies must press ahead with their packaging policies. Here are five takeaways.

Regulation, regulation, regulation 

It’s a big year for regulation on packaging. In January, England announced bans on single-use items like cutlery and polystyrene cups, following in the footsteps of Scotland (bans in force) and Wales (autumn). More details on extended producer responsibility (EPR) are desperately overdue – recent meetings between Defra and industry suggests understanding of the concept not to mention what it means commercially remains extremely poor. The ins and outs (and divergence across devolved administrations) of the deposit return schemes will be hotly debated right up until the first one starts in Scotland in August. 

Indeed, after much dithering and delay it’s going to be a chaotic period. And regulators are also (finally) looking beyond recycling and up the waste hierarchy at policies to encourage reuse and drive packaging reduction, both of which can offer considerable carbon benefits. The EU has already made a move to shake up all single-use packaging. Defra is currently poring over research it commissioned to gather information on policies around the globe that stimulate reuse.  

Brands with net-zero aspirations should be watching all this closely as their packaging policies are measured through a carbon intensity lens. They should also consider the talks to deliver a global plastics treaty and whether the focus is on recycling or there are caps on plastic production and consumption. 

Coming clean on plastic

Data on plastic drives change, according to WWF, which has been working with McDonald’s and Starbucks to encourage more transparency. The latest update, published in December, showed the “significant impact” that companies can have when they work to make changes within their own portfolios, but also “prove the need for larger systemic change”. Expect more businesses to follow suit and more data to come to light. 

CDP for example is expanding its global environmental disclosure system to include various questions and metrics relating to plastic. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has raised the bar in relation to voluntary disclosures on plastic footprints, is also involved in the project which will hopefully see more businesses better understand their responsibilities and risks related to the plastic crisis. Investors, consumers and employees all want businesses to come clean on their use of plastic but who will be brave enough to publish their entire packaging footprint?

Reuse revival

“Single-use is so convenient and it’s almost impossible to match that with reuse,” explains a senior sustainability expert at a high street coffee chain. “But we have to and to do that reuse needs to be pre-competitive.” High street chains and contract caterers are implementing an ever-widening array of reusable packaging trials, covering both cups and containers. 

Burger King, Starbucks, Just Eat and McDonald’s have all being trialling new models. Supporters of the movement are suitably encouraged and there is certainly more optimism around possible changes from even a year ago (in Footprint’s 2022 report). “Get the formula right and you have a multimillion-euro disruptive business taking sales away from single-use packaging with upscale refill experiences that are an improvement on the status quo,” wrote Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder at Circuthon Consulting, in Packaging Europe recently.

Reath, which has worked with M&S on its refill in store system, is building a business case tool on reuse funded by Starbucks, which has launched more than 20 trials of reusable and returnable cup programmes around the globe. Data will be used to compare the price of single-use and reusable cups, factoring in everything from plastics taxes and EPR to the up-front costs of reuse and potential loss rates. “If it was easy to deploy a reuse system that delivered a better experience, was more convenient and cheaper then everyone would already be doing it,” explains Claire Rampen, co-founder of Reath, who is encouraged by companies looking at the cost and commercial implications of reuse over single-use. Technology could play a key role in the success of reuse systems in foodservice, she adds, helping to “ease the pain. Single-use is easy – you order 1,000 cups and when you run out you order 1,000 more. Reuse isn’t like that. You need to track the packaging, get better at predicting its flow and ensuring you don’t run out.”

Convenience for both companies and consumers will be key – wide availability of schemes and ‘not having to go out of their way’ were two of the top five reasons that would ensure consumers buy into reuse, according to research by Bunzl and Hubbub in 2022. Much rests on the ability of highly competitive brands to collaborate. Scaling one reuse and return model across multiple companies, both large and small, requires them to step away from their brands and use standardised and unbranded packaging. It’s an almost impossible concept for marketing teams to grasp but it’s one that sustainability leaders have already started to push behind the scenes.

That Hubbub/Bunzl research also showed that knowing reuse is better for the environment, earning rewards or discounts and price parity with single-use were all more important than convenience.

The debate over the environmental impacts of single-use versus reusables will undoubtedly rumble on this year. “Much of the focus in recent years has been on recycling and this needs to shift towards educating customers about the role of reuse and the environmental benefits that come with it,” explains Hubbub co-founder Gavin Ellis. There also needs to be progress made on better understanding the LCAs of reusable packaging, he adds.

Making sense of sustainable solutions

Companies are grappling with which single-use materials make the most sense. Companies will increasingly turn to life cycle assessments (LCAs) to guide their decisions as they work on their carbon reduction plans. The limitations of these assessments should be front of mind (plastic pollution isn’t currently a metric used in LCAs, says one consultant). IGD, which provides insights to the grocery sector, has published a best practice guide to help the sector undertake packaging LCAs in a standardised way. “I think quite rightly they are focusing on some of the bigger wins, like their ingredients, but they’re going to need every little bit of carbon savings,” says Amanda Curtis who led the work. 

Costa has switched to fibre-based lids that have “up to 50% lower carbon footprint” than the current polystyrene ones, for example. Some drinks brands have also begun to move from glass to aluminium in a bid to cut emissions. “Packaging is [often] the first touch point with consumers,” explains Laura Peano, global plastics lead at sustainability consultancy Quantis. “It really provides the first image of the brand to the consumer.”

However, consumers often want one thing but the science suggests another. It’s no wonder many are left in a muddle. Communicating changes mightn’t be easy: often people don’t see packaging made from plastic (even recycled plastic) through the same green-tinted lens as compostable or paper, as research commissioned for Footprint’s 2023 packaging report shows. Research published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling in June 2022 noted: “[…] if neither theorists, nor companies, nor government agree on the sustainability of different types of packaging – how are consumers supposed to make correct assessments?” 

Paper – cutting through the claims

Paper packaging has benefitted from the anti-plastic narrative but the presence of a plastic layer continues to create problems for recyclers. Wrap research shows 3.2 billion items of fibre-composite food packaging were used in 2019 but there was “no treatment or recycling infrastructure in place” for them. Cups present a similar headache, with efforts to segregate them struggling to scale despite the 6,300 collection points now in place. 

Moves by some drinks brands to introduce plastic-lined paper bottles in place of glass or plastic have also been questioned by recycling companies. The January deadline to reduce the level of laminate allowed from 15% of packaging weight to 10% by the On-Pack Recycling Label has been delayed for paper and lightweight card packaging under 120gsm. Paper mills ideally want just 5%. So expect paper to come under scrutiny this year.

Indeed, NGOs are interrogating the use of PFAs, or ‘forever chemicals’, to improve water resistance in paper, card and compostables, as well as the environmental impact of producing paper packaging. Companies who are making the necessary shift from plastic but are choosing to replace that with paper packaging are “trading one environmental disaster for another”, warned Canopy, the forest conservation network, recently. How to use recycled content in paper packaging will increasingly be under consideration. As one expert noted, fibre’s “free ride” to date could be coming to an end.

Footprint’s 2023 packaging report, in association with Klöckner Pentaplast, is available and free HERE to download.