How to unpick the plastic packaging problem

Sancroft Team
By Sancroft Team

By Ross Lakhdari, former Consultant at Sancroft.

Coca Cola’s recent announcement at Davos that it will continue to use single use plastic for the foreseeable future and the global media furore which followed shows what a live and toxic issue plastic packaging has become for business.

At Sancroft, one of the biggest growth areas of our work is in advising businesses – ranging from packaging manufactures, recyclers and reprocessors, to brands and retailers and everything else in between – around how they can reduce the use of plastic packaging.

Consumer and media scrutiny plays an important role in driving these organisations to act. So too does the realisation that, even if they are not signed up to initiatives like WRAP’s Plastics Pact, which commits to tackle the issue of plastic waste in their supply chains, new legislation and accompanying taxes represent a material risk to their future profitability. Increasingly, of course, leaders simply want to do the right thing.

Every organisation faces its own unique challenges in reducing plastic. Based on our client work, there are five common areas every business needs to consider if they are to make progress against any meaningful target.

  1. Engaging suppliers

Suppliers hold crucial information on packaging specifications, including weights, material, recycled content levels and recyclability. Not only can they help in mapping your packaging footprint, they are the people who will help you with the changes you need to eliminate unnecessary and problematic packaging. They can’t do this effectively without understanding how you want your packaging to change and evolve, and time to adapt production and use of materials. It’s vital then to engage and educate them early.

  1. Collaborative innovation

Razor slim margins and fierce competition make any sort of collaboration a rare feature in many of the sectors that we work in. Despite this, coming together to find common ground, prioritise areas for action and leverage collective buying power or influence means that collaboration – within and beyond an immediate sector – is critical to reducing plastics use which requires total systems change. Actively supporting collaboration is therefore a critical pillar of any packaging strategy.

  1. Joined-up action within the business

Changes in business practice resulting from targets on plastics reduction can cause unintended consequences when, for instance, decisions made by the sustainability or procurement team may conflict with the price constraints faced by a product manager or buyer. Targets should be communicated and ‘owned’ across the business to ensure that any action is joined-up in its approach and not creating problems which will undermine the business or its commitments.

  1. Business model disruption

Moving to a circular consumption model which features reuse and recycling means that many businesses now need to consider waste management as a core competency in order manage costs, meet legislative requirements and compete effectively.

Take-back schemes, which collect either post-consumer packaging waste or unwanted goods – think of Nespresso’s coffee pod collection scheme – will become commonplace across consumer and business-to-business sectors.

  1. Target big gains but start small

The packaging landscape is complex with differing geographical requirements, numerous pieces of emerging legislation, highly engaged consumers/NGOs voicing their demands and countless companies claiming to have the solution. Deciding where to begin, therefore, is a daunting task.

The way to tackle this is with a plan which balances long term goals with smaller gains to build momentum, confidence and buy-in across a business before focusing in on the more challenging tasks that require innovation and industry collaboration.

You can read more about how to develop a plastic packaging strategy in our new report which is available here.