Thursday 27 June 2019

Good things come in sustainable packages

'Consumer awareness is driving demand for sustainable alternatives from the ground up. At the same time, legislation designed to protect the environment is driving change from the top down' (stock photo)
'Consumer awareness is driving demand for sustainable alternatives from the ground up. At the same time, legislation designed to protect the environment is driving change from the top down' (stock photo)

Paddy Byrne

They say good things come in small packages. In fact, they come in sustainable packaging.

In particular, the urgency to ensure that the food and drink we consume comes wrapped in - and protected by - environmentally-friendly packaging was the focus of a major information event held recently by Enterprise Ireland.

The event brought representatives from Ireland's print and packaging sector together with food and beverage manufacturers to hear from a mix of speakers. These included sustainable packaging experts from major multinationals, international consumer marketing experts, and academic researchers working on cutting-edge materials technology.

Packaging does matter, not least because Ireland's print and packaging sector employs 10,000 people, predominantly in food packaging. Around half of those employed in the sector work in Enterprise Ireland-backed companies, where the focus is on supporting export growth.

Right now across the EU and the wider world, two factors are intensifying the search for sustainable packaging solutions. Firstly, consumer awareness is driving demand for sustainable alternatives from the ground up. At the same time, legislation designed to protect the environment is driving change from the top down.

Both trends have been brought into sharp focus by the European Union's 2018 framework promoting the 'circular economy'. The objective is for all packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2030. Legislation is already being approved in all EU national parliaments to ban single use plastics such as straws and plastic culinary where possible. China's decision to cease importation of soft plastics has intensified the pressure on countries such as Ireland to create sustainable packaging ecosystems.

Speakers at the event included global FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) players such as Tetra Pak and Nestlé, both of which have committed to ensuring all their packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2025. Experts from Mintel Global Market Research told how consumers and retailers are driving the sustainable packaging agenda.

FMCG companies now seek to protect brand equity with packaging that reflects core values and sustainability increasingly important.

Meeting this challenge requires cross-supply chain innovation and collaboration among stakeholders. This includes the need for improved recycling infrastructure and greater consumer understanding of the role packaging plays in protecting products, extending shelf life, and thereby reducing waste. Innovating sustainable packaging solutions isn't just a challenge, it's an opportunity. At Enterprise Ireland, we know that companies that invest in innovation are typically rewarded with higher revenues, employee numbers, and exports.

What's more, companies that can create environmentally friendly packaging are increasingly finding that it resonates with the market. Enterprise Ireland has developed a strategy to assist companies with the challenge of sustainable packaging through our innovation, competitiveness and market development supports.

The good news for Ireland is that there is an enormous amount of innovation being implemented, including at Enterprise Ireland's Applied Polymer Technologies (APT) Gateway, based at Athlone IT, and at AMBER (the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research) at Trinity College Dublin. It's an area many innovative Irish companies are succeeding in, including CupPrint, whose compostable disposable coffee cups are an international hit.

Dublin company Watershed is developing recyclable and compostable labels. Innovators such as Avoncourt Packaging and Quinn Packaging use environmentally-friendly recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) for food packaging.

Foxpak is utilising compostable polymers for stand-up pouches, while Irish Flexible Packaging is developing sustainable paper packaging solutions for bakery and dairy products.

On the materials front, XtruPak makes flexible PET laminates with recycled and virgin PET, while UCD Professor Kevin O'Connor's Bioplastech develops sustainable bioplastics.

While there is no one silver bullet - different products require different solutions - this is a fixable problem, as long as all groups involved work together. The quicker they do so the better because this is not an Irish problem but a planetary one. Crack it and you have a global market.

Paddy Byrne is a senior technologist for the engineering, paper, print and packaging sectors at Enterprise Ireland

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