Pack for good: sustainable packaging considerations for SMEs

Innovative sustainable packaging solutions are many and varied, but some are better for the environment than others. What should SMEs consider?

“We made the decision to pursue sustainable packaging solutions for two main reasons,” says Brad Wicks, Head of Marketing. “As a South West brand based in Plymouth – Britain’s ‘Ocean City’ – we have a genuine desire to try and reduce any negative impacts our products might have on our coastlines and green spaces. After all, it’s important that we protect these spaces and preserve them for future generations.

“Secondly, we believe it’s important that our products accurately reflect the people that use them. Over the past few years, we’ve asked our customers for direct feedback on a number of ethical and environmental stances. This includes everything from the recyclability of our packaging to the complete removal of animal hair shaving brushes from our range.”

So out went the company’s old virgin plastic tubs to be replaced with 100% recyclable aluminium tins. The plastic the company now uses for its body wash is made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastics and can itself be recycled. The Bluebeards Revenge has also introduced refill pouches for products such as its roll-on deodorant, and is encouraging customers to reuse its plastic bottles and tins rather than throw them away.

Not a straightforward transition to plastic free

Such swingeing changes don’t come cheap: Wicks estimates it costs the brand around 25% more to maintain its supply of sustainable packaging.

The Bluebeards Revenge is one of countless SMEs making the shift to more sustainable packaging, but it’s a transition that can be fraught with difficulties. If employing a full-time packaging expert or appointing a consultant isn’t possible, how can SMEs best go about managing the process?

Haulwen Nicholas, aka the Packaging Oracle, explains some common pitfalls: “Plastics are still perceived as bad and people are interested in recyclable and biodegradable and compostable options. However, many [people] are making quick decisions and not considering the overall environmental impact, but just thinking ‘get rid of plastic and go to refill’. In some instances this is really good, but in others it isn’t.

“Small businesses in particular want plastic-free options, but don’t appreciate why it’s used and are surprised when they find the packaging they have already purchased has a plastic lining to allow it to seal and give good barrier properties, or isn’t recyclable as the packaging supplier claimed.”

There isn’t a single packaging material that can be classed as completely sustainable

Haulwen Nicholas
The Packaging Oracle

Nicholas adds that there is a lot of ‘greenwash’ out there which is confusing brand owners and consumers. “There isn’t a single packaging material that can be classed as completely sustainable,” she says.

The packaging minefield

The need for SME brand owners and their customers to gain a better understanding of the pros and cons of using different packaging materials is a view shared by Paul Jenkins, founder of packaging consultancy ThePackHub, who describes the area is a “minefield”.

“I think some people have this sort of idealistic view that everything could be solved with moving to compostable packaging, but it’s more nuanced than that,” he says.

“There’s a whole area around communication and consumers’ willingness to do something with that material. The average punter is not massively interested in putting packaging in their compost bin and they may not have facilities for it to be kerbside collected and composted.

“So it’s not a simple, straightforward goal for a company to move to compostable packaging.”

In terms of the key sustainable packaging trends being embraced by SME brands at the moment, Jenkins and Nicholas single out reuse and refill options, anti-plastic and new biodegradable and compostable materials as the main focus. Much of the recent innovation in the latter areas have mainly been new versions of existing products, according to Jenkins.

MarinaTex: the next big thing?

Lucy Hughes is a product design graduate from Sussex University who has developed a plastic alternative using fish waste called MarinaTex.

“MarinaTex is a home-compostable plastic alternative made from 100% organic materials,” says Hughes. “The main components are sourced from the sea, including algae and protein from fish processing waste that is usually destined for landfill or energy-intensive transit and processing. MarinaTex can degrade back into the soil in a mere six weeks – this fulfils my ambition to create a plastic film alternative that can genuinely be part of the circular environment.”

She hopes to commercialise the plastic alternative in the next couple of years.

The problem that Hughes and other inventors of new sustainable materials face is that growing these operations takes time and, even when they are fully commercialised, the price can sometimes be beyond the reach of many SMEs.

“Most of the ‘trendy’ environmental solutions are out of reach for even medium-size brands,” says Nicholas. “So, as much as people want more sustainable solutions, unless you have the multimillion pounds to support some of these new materials/initiatives then many of the sustainable packaging options aren’t viable.”

Until then, SMEs will have to continue to grapple with the challenge of finding sustainable packaging solutions that don’t cost the earth and could well end up helping to save it.

Useful links for SMEs

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