Balancing Trade-Offs and Small Actions for Big Packaging Impact

As we embark on our shared quest to meet the 2025 and 2030 Science Based targets & meeting new CSRD requirements with climate, waste, biodiversity and water goals among others, we want to share an inspiring interview with Asa Stenmark, an expert from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on how to future-proof the critical journey towards sustainable packaging.

At Unibloom, we've been actively engaging, working with and interviewing experts from diverse backgrounds and functions, including consumer brands (ie Ben & Jerry's, Cloetta & ScandiStandard, Axfood (Dagab)), innovative material organisations (Notpla & WRAP), manufacturers (Notpla, SmurfitKappa & Stora Enso, and waste intelligence management experts (Grey Parrot), in an effort to understand the intricate nature of the packaging transition.

It has become clear that this journey is complex, left in spreadsheets, e-mails and power points across the organisations different functions and fraught with decisions, internally and on policy level, that need to be made.

I'm thrilled to announce that we've had the privilege of engaging in a fascinating conversation with Åsa.  Her extensive national policy insights have enriched our understanding of the packaging transition, which is an integral part of every consumer goods company's journey toward Science-Based Targets and new packaging and CSRD regulations across Europe particularly.

1. Policy Perspective on Packaging Transition

In an exclusive interview with Åsa Stenmarck, we delved into the evolving world of sustainable packaging. Åsa's insights are not only enlightening but deeply build upon decades of expertise, offering valuable recommendations for consumer brands, organisations, and manufacturers who are dedicated to making a positive impact on the environment. Her unique policy perspective has shed light on the key challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Åsa's role at the Swedish EPA revolves around crafting effective regulations and promoting sustainable plastic use. Her work includes actively participating in the National Plastic Coordination initiative, where she facilitates collaboration among various actors in the value chain, from packaging designers to raw material producers.

For Åsa, packaging, especially plastic packaging, holds a special place in her work. As the most prevalent form of plastic use across industries, she emphasises the importance of resource-smart usage. This includes reducing, reusing, and recycling packaging materials. Åsa also underscores the significance of sustainable sourcing, waste management, and preventing litter as key areas of focus in their efforts.

Achieving a packaging transition is not a solitary endeavour. Åsa and her team have brought together a diverse group of experts, including packaging designers, users, producers, and raw material suppliers. Additionally, they are actively collaborating with reusables practitioners, embracing a sustainable, reusable system approach. This inclusive approach involves everyone along the entire value chain, making it a truly collaborative effort.

2. Challenges in Packaging Recycling

One of the most pressing challenges we discussed with Åsa is the low recycling rates for plastic packaging in Sweden (and everywhere!), especially for consumer goods product packaging. The issues of inadequate collection and sorting, problems with sorting techniques, and low demand for recycled plastics all contribute to these challenges. Moreover, Åsa pointed out that not all plastic packaging is designed with recycling in mind, further complicating the recycling process.

In light of these challenges, Åsa and her team have placed a strong emphasis on resource-efficient practices, with a focus on reducing and reusing – the fundamental principles that ensure the longevity of materials within the system. Their perspective diverges from recycling-centric approaches, as they believe that prioritising resource-efficient usage is a more significant stride forward. While recycling efforts are gaining momentum, there's a realisation that there's still much work to be done, especially in the realm of packaging. They are actively engaged in legislative negotiations, exploring possibilities to enhance existing laws for adequate packaging reduction.

In Sweden, the current recycling rate for packaging is just under 20%. This figure slightly improves when considering both business and household packaging, reaching around 34%. However, they are still far from the target of achieving a 50% recycling rate, and there are plans to raise this target to 55% in the coming years. The challenges are significant, primarily related to insufficient collection and sorting efforts. To put things into perspective, a typical Swedish garbage bag still contains approximately 50% packaging, with a significant portion being plastic packaging. Unfortunately, plastic packaging remains the most problematic material when it comes to efficient sorting.

3. Driving Positive Change

There's a wave of positive change building on several fronts, driven by industry initiatives. Prominent global players like Unilever and Nestle have unveiled ambitious plans to reduce plastic use and emphasize recyclability and sustainable packaging. While not all industry players share the same commitment, many are actively taking steps towards positive change.

Sweden, in particular, has seen encouraging examples of progress. Some companies have successfully reduced plastic usage in items like bread bags and small plastic sleeves found on oil bottles, with the goal of eliminating the latter. These changes may seem incremental, but their cumulative impact is truly noteworthy.

Although legislation is certainly on the horizon, what's heartening is that the industry is proactively spearheading numerous initiatives to drive change independently. This marks a significant step in the right direction.

Åsa also shared her view on the factors driving positive change. She highlighted the upcoming Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation from the EU, which aims to set ambitious recycling targets and focus on improving packaging designs. Industry initiatives, such as Swedish grocery stores committing to recyclable and recycled packaging by 2025 and 2030, demonstrate that industry players are taking independent steps toward sustainability. Additionally, the influence of consumer demand for more sustainable options is growing, driven by increased awareness of plastic-related environmental issues.

4. Common Misconceptions About Plastic Packaging

Our conversation delved into the misconceptions surrounding plastic packaging. It's evident that plastic packaging is becoming increasingly common in various aspects of our lives, including fruits and vegetables. It serves both practical and wasteful purposes. On one hand, such packaging extends the shelf life of products, preventing food waste, which is undeniably a positive aspect. Plastic advocates emphasize this role in preserving food.

However, it's crucial not to overemphasize the packaging's significance in the overall environmental impact. This argument tends to overshadow the exploration of alternative solutions. Moreover, concerns about consumer preferences sometimes appear exaggerated.

Consider a conversation Asa had with a plastic film manufacturer. They experimented with incorporating recycled materials into their plastic wrap, designed to encase products like toilet paper. However, they observed a slight blurriness in the ink of the branding on the recycled version, imperceptible to the average consumer. Nevertheless, the packaging developer was hesitant, believing customers might not favor this option. In reality, most customers wouldn't even notice the difference, highlighting the need to reevaluate these perceptions.

Certainly, when we consider packaging choices, it's essential to account for the specific requirements of different food products. In the case of bread, for instance, plastic packaging offers an extended shelf life, especially relevant in Sweden, where it's common to purchase bread for more extended consumption periods. This differs from the practice in some other countries where bread is bought fresh daily. Similarly, certain food items like cheese benefit from plastic packaging, especially for preserving shelf life once the packaging is opened. Plastic acts as a crucial barrier, shielding the contents from oxygen and other factors that may affect food quality.

However, it's also crucial to acknowledge instances where packaging trends have taken an unfavorable turn. In Sweden, there has been a notable shift in potato packaging, transitioning from traditional paper bags to plastic alternatives. This change was primarily driven by consumer preferences for packaging with visible contents. However, this shift has had adverse consequences for the shelf life of potatoes. The exposure to light and moisture, resulting from plastic packaging, negatively impacts the potatoes' freshness and quality.

This example highlights how the choice of packaging materials can significantly affect the durability and overall quality of food products. It underscores the importance of carefully weighing the pros and cons of packaging decisions in each specific context.

Asa addressed the common belief that recycling is ineffective due to the high incineration rates of waste. She emphasized the crucial role of correct recycling practices and encouraged a transition toward more sustainable packaging alternatives. Additionally, she dispelled the misconception that small changes don't make a significant impact. Asa stressed that even seemingly minor adjustments, when adopted collectively, can lead to substantial reductions in plastic usage.

When it comes to achieving quick wins for businesses and consumer-facing brands, Asa recommended a closer examination of packaging formats. Identifying areas where plastic use can be reduced or replaced is a practical approach. Small changes, such as the elimination of unnecessary plastic sleeves or the substitution of plastic bags with eco-friendly alternatives, can significantly reduce environmental impact while potentially enhancing a company's reputation.

5. Taking Small Steps for Big Impact

It's crucial to convey the message that taking small steps can lead to substantial strides, particularly for businesses. Consider an inspiring example from Sweden involving the packaging of bananas, specifically the organic ones. Initially, these bananas were all sold in plastic bags. However, a forward-thinking grocery chain introduced a simple solution – using plastic bands to hold together bunches of bananas. This innovative approach has since been widely adopted, effectively eliminating the need for plastic bags.

Another practical illustration involves the sleeves used for products like oils and vinegars. While these sleeves might seem inconsequential, their removal can result in a meaningful reduction in plastic waste. Similarly, in the case of bread packaging, minor adjustments, such as shortening the bag while maintaining the same quantity of bread, can go unnoticed by consumers but significantly reduce plastic usage. These instances underscore the potential for impactful change through seemingly minor alterations in packaging practices. Moreover, businesses view these changes as worthwhile endeavours not only for their environmental benefits but also for the cost savings and enhanced public perception they bring.

Asa concluded with a powerful message: every stakeholder can take steps toward sustainable packaging, from gaining control of data to making small changes that, when combined, lead to more substantial impacts. Collaboration, drawing inspiration from successful examples, and co-innovation are the keys to achieving a future with more sustainable packaging

Want to make the transition happen? Learn more how you can automate calculation for packaging switches, create scenarios for highest impact and optimise cost, waste, weight and packaging material towards 2030 goals.

Unibloom's mission is to empower sustainability and packaging teams with predictive & integrated digital and data-driven tools they need to navigate the transition to 2030 SBTI targets & CSRD, seamlessly. Our approach encompasses predictive calculations, scenarios, and actionable steps to make a real impact ownable across all functions, in one platform.

It's not just about thinking big; it's about starting small, taking those initial steps that pave the way for substantial change, with the right trade-offs.

Unibloom has  a transition element software to empower your team to digitise the packaging transition!




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