APSRG event highlights packaging concerns

Attendees of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) event yesterday (22 April) heard updates on packaging, with a focus on ‘minimising environmental impact throughout the lifecycle’.


Speakers from Sainsbury’s and Tetra Pak explained what their own companies were doing, while a representative from the Packaging Federation described new research into consumer attitudes to packaging and an Environmental Services Association (ESA) economist spoke of concerns to do with collection and sorting packaging.

Maximising the environmental impact of packaging’ 

Stuart Lendrum, Head of Packaging at Sainsbury’s, opened proceedings by noting: “We should be maximising the environmental impact of packaging, rather than minimising it, which misses the broader issue.”

He went on to explain the role of packaging in the supermarket chain’s interconnected sustainability commitments and highlighted the troubles the company faces because customers view packaging ‘in a disproportionately negative way’. Lendrum maintained that customers mistakenly focus on volume of packaging, rather than weight, concluding: “Because they have so many touch points with packaging, from in the shop, at home and into the bin, they reinforce their views on packaging… So, we have to find the right pace of approach and make sure we bring customers with us on the journey." 

Lendrum also highlighted the importance of taking an individualised approach to each piece of packaging, saying that you “can’t treat packaging with a broad brush stroke because then you’ll miss things that are specific to different products”. The Head of Packaging claimed Sainsbury’s was taking lots of “small, incremental steps forward”, but hinted that progress on packaging could slow in the near future as the company focuses resources on complying with new labelling legislation.

More packaging needed for ‘food security’

Dick Searle, Chief Executive of the Packaging Federation, then launched into a talk he titled ‘The “Inconvenient Truths” of Packaging.’ Searle described the work of the ‘mythbusting group’ – comprised of WRAP, INCPEN, the Packaging Federation, Kent Waste Partnership, and others – which aimed to disprove the myth that packaging was more of a problem than food waste. More than £100,000 was invested and resulted in the recent ‘Consumer Attitudes to Food Waste and Food Packaging’ report. The research identified that consumers hold misconceptions about the importance of packaging to protecting products in the home, and has resulted in the campaign ‘Fresher for Longer’, launched on 5 March.

During his talk, Searle also claimed that food waste has an impact 15 times greater than packaging and that “the impact of food and drink within the supply chain without packaging would be hugely greater”. Noting packaging’s role in protecting food and also referencing mounting concerns about food security, he concluded: “We need a heck of a lot more packaging to achieve food security.”

PRN/PERN reform

Jason Hayler, Economist at the ESA, concluded the presentations by attempting to explain packaging concerns from the collectors’ and sorters’ perspective. He noted that ‘key issues’ for the integrated waste management corporations the ESA represents include the requirements of local authority customers, and the state of the Packaging Recovery Note/Packaging Export Recovery Note (PRN/PERN) system. In reference to claims that the system unfairly benefits those who export waste for recycling, Hayler said the ESA would “like to see further work done to resolve this potential distortion”, though the organisation does not want “to see the discussion used to discourage or inhibit legitimate recycling”.

During questioning, Hayler was pressed on the issue of exports by David Workman from the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI), who asked how the ESA’s exporting members would meet China’s new quality standards of just 1.5 per cent contamination “as it clearly isn’t [being met] at the moment”. Hayler responded: “If standards come into play, our members will deal with it as appropriate.”

Chris Dow, CEO of Closed Loop Recycling further pressed the matter with the concluding question, asking how the industry can stop the “false subsidy” and “price support” offered to exporters by the current PRN/PERN system. Hayler again emphasised it “is something we recognise as an issue”, and noted that although Defra has also "recognised the issue", the department has “parked it to one side”. The ESA could, in future, help bring the subject back to the spotlight, Hayler concluded.