An Education In Sustainable Packaging
How can brands be more sustainable? How can the consumer? Is it through eco-friendly packaging or "clean" initiatives? What are the alternatives to plastic packaging? Does your recycling even get recycled? What do symbols on the packaging mean (the answer will surprise you)? Watch the video below to get answers to these questions as Maleka talks to Paul Jenkins, the founder of thePackHub and an expert on packaging.
How can brands be more sustainable?
Sustainability is a complex issue, and consumers rarely get the full story. Most brands need to decide which part of sustainability they want to go after because whatever you do, it has an impact somewhere else.
The hierarchy of sustainability is to reduce, reuse, recycle.
- Reduce, in practice using something that has less packaging e.g tube instead of double walled jars in lined cartons will cell-wrap.
- Reuse is an opportunity to use what you already have; plastic bags, for example.
- Recycle means making an effort to recycle.
We need to be clear on this - there is no easy way to do things. Action, effort, and consistency will have a long-term effect over time.
Does everything in the recycling bin gets recycled?
In short - no. Like sustainability, recycling is a complicated issue. It depends on several factors. In the UK, there are over 450 recycling plants. But not all recycling plants have the same processing capabilities. Mostly, it depends on where you live and your borough. For example, some plants want the cap on PET bottles to stay on. Otherwise, the bottle won't get recycled. In theory, all materials are recyclable. But, sometimes, it isn't economically viable for recycling businesses to make the effort to separate the materials, especially if they are small.
Because recycling is about economics. The majority of plastic waste isn't processed in the UK but sold to various countries around the world. Certain materials (like paper, aluminium, plastic, etc.) are more lucrative than the others. Based on the demand, these materials ship to other markets.
Recycling and the beauty industry
The main issue with recycling and the beauty industry is there is no unified standard on how to separate and recycle. The government is working with the industry to create a unified message that can go on all the products.
Are there viable alternatives to plastic packaging?
The consumer goods packaging underwent a fundamental change over the last few years. David Attenborough's The Blue Planet series did a segment on ocean plastic that started an avalanche of anti-plastic sentiment. As a result, many companies are coming up with policies to reduce the amount of plastic in their supply chain.
People perceive plastic as bad because of the amount of waste it creates and how long it takes to degrade (although some recent studies show it might not take 100 years). The reason plastic is so popular is because it is a lightweight, versatile, and economical material. Likewise, it extends the shelf life of the product.
Glass is growing in popularity, but is it a viable alternative?
Consider this - glass is 15 times heavier than plastic and requires three times more energy to produce. Because of this, it emits five times more CO2 than plastic. Also, the product becomes heavy, and when it ships, carbon emissions are higher. A brand or consumer might switch to glass, but not realise the impact their decision has on the environment in another way.
Tubes, travel sizes, and refills
Tube packaging has its challenges. Often, the lid and the tube are from different materials. The best-case scenario with tubes would be to have the whole thing made from the same material. But that presents another challenge - the usability of the products (will the product dispense as it should.) Multi-material packaging is popular for a reason - it works and gives optimum product performance and shelf life. PCR materials will have a government cap because they will run out if we use 100%. So we use 50%
It is prohibitively more expensive for smaller brands to offer samples and travel sizes. These types of initiatives are more suited for big brands because they do things on a much larger scale. For pouches, for example, the minimum order amount is 50.000 units. Even if bulk-buying and using as needed, you can't guarantee the integrity of the material after some time passed.
Refills and other newer initiatives are dependent on two factors - points of distribution and how wide is the distribution network. If your product is available in every Boots/Tesco/ASDA, it makes sense. However, for smaller brands, it is a more complicated and labour-intensive process that results in a higher cost for the consumer.
New eco-friendly inventions are like skincare ingredients. Big corporations will buy it (or offer to buy it) under an exclusivity agreement. It means they will be able to utilise it in their products without making it available to other brands. Usually, when exclusivity agreements end, the invention will become widely available and more affordable.
Likewise, another thing consumers might be unaware of - every single time a brand wants to change the packaging, the product has to go through a (12-week minimum) testing period. It is to ensure there is compatibility between the packaging and the product and it may not be. Afterward, the product may need to be safety tested again because safety is of utmost importance
What can we, as consumers, do?
- What is your "why" for using a brand or a product? Is it because it is eco-friendly and sustainable? Or is it because it makes your skin look better? We need to balance these two "whys." Likewise, we need to decide how much we are willing to pay, since the cost gets passed onto the consumer.
- Educate yourself on how recycling works in your area. Learn what can and can't be recycled.
- As a consumer, if you want to know what a brand is doing to be more sustainable, ask. The answers are rarely straightforward despite what the marketing and advertising leads you to believe.
Sustainability is a complex and complicated issue. In our opinion, as long as brands are educating themselves and trying to do something, it is a good thing.
In Merumaya's case, we have decided to offer two of our bestselling products in bigger sizes. That way, the products last longer, and there is less waste. The price is more affordable for our customers, too.
What is your position on sustainability? How do you practice it when it comes to your purchasing choices? How does it affect your view of the brand?