Packaging Innovations Birmingham is a hugely anticipated fixture on the Pearlfisher Realisation team’s calendar and this year’s two-day event ‘The future of branded and inspirational packaging’ once again surpassed expectations. It showcased both the best of new suppliers, makers and innovators and offered a stage for the very latest industry knowledge, expertise and debate.

This year’s event focused on the issue of sustainability across all parts of the design and packaging supply chain spotlighting the use of plastics, carbon and reusable packaging. The following article shares the three over-riding themes that offered a truly directive approach to different materials both new and old, and what we all need to consider when creating packaging design in the future.

1. Precious metals

“Over 340 million litres of food waste was saved by using metal tins”.

Crown Holdings Inc

Food waste can be mitigated by designing the right packaging, but packaging waste continues to present a critical issue in itself. During the conference’s annual ‘Big Debate’, Crown Holdings Inc (one of the leading food packaging suppliers) presented a study comparing the use of metal tins to the use of disposable plastic food packaging. Research showed that over one year in Canada and America, they found that over 340 million litres of food waste was saved by using metal tins. 

For us, the most exciting stands were not zany new inventions, but those that sought new uses for old materials. The durability of aluminium makes it a prime candidate for refillable products, a great metal-for-plastic substitute and its recyclability means it can go back into the system eternally. We loved seeing the work that Haagen-Dazs (in partnership with Terracycle’s Loop platform) was presenting on the Design Innovation Stage with its forward-thinking refillable ice-cream tins.

The message here is that we all need to consider the vast potential of the recyclable and refillable space and how we keep materials in the system, rather than designing them out of it.

2. Purposeful plastic

“If all packaging came from plants and trees, there would be a huge carbon sink.” 

– Ecopack Stage Panelist, Simon Balderson, Owner of Sirane Group 

“Biodegradables” are big news. But, as the inverted commas suggest, we take a lot of care when using the word “biodegradables”, amidst murky claims of how long they actually take to biodegrade, what they leave behind, and if they can be processed by our current infrastructure. 

This doesn’t mean bio-based materials don’t have their place. Many suppliers we met with are now reducing reliance on petro-based plastics by creating polyethene from biomatter (such as maize, corn or sugarcane). These won’t break down in home composting, but they can be blended with petro-based plastics or rPET to create a mono-polymer that can be recycled in the existing plastics stream. The carbon footprint is much lower in the production stage, and the resource is renewable, unlike finite fossil fuels. Spectra Packaging is doing great work in this area as is Bericap with its cap tethering initiative that increases capture rates (and therefore recycling rates) of plastic lids by tethering them to the bottle. 

We believe that circularity beats obsolescence. Even if we invented the perfect biodegradable, why use energy to create something that has no value after a singular use?

3. Does paper always cut it?

A paper bag takes 4 x as much energy to produce as a plastic bag.” 

– Source: Northern Irish Assembly research paper on the environmental impact of carrier bags

A recurring topic in the ‘Big Greenwashing Debate’ was the warning that false sustainability claims are not the only form of greenwashing to look out for. Some brands and manufacturers are making claims that are technically true, but misleading in how beneficial or relevant they actually are. 

The labelling of paper products as ‘100% naturally biodegradable and compostable’ is one example. Paper will biodegrade but doesn’t necessarily compost (have a nutritional value to the soil). Claims such as this rely on distraction and buzzwords, to boost a product’s sustainability profile, and largely ignore the broader implications of its use and lifecycle. Sponsors of the ‘Big Greenwashing Debate’, OPRL Ltd, operate a UK wide label recycling scheme and are proponents of the message that paper is much more valuable when collected and recycled into more paper, rather than just being left to litter or wither away. 

Our thinking is that in order to be truly sustainable, we have to strive towards total transparency, clear labelling, and education of consumers on the entire lifecycle of products – from the carbon footprint of their production to their true end of life.  

To conclude, the event sparked fresh thinking and exciting new ways of doing things. Above all, we were particularly encouraged by the widespread shift which sees a shift from perceived ‘oldness’ or imperfection to usefulness and perpetuity, by rediscovering the beauty and benefit in what we already have available. We came away feeling inspired and committed about how – together, as an industry – we can design a lighter, better and more circular future.