Packaging and sustainable development
An INCPEN case study

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Page 3: The environmental impact of packaging

Incpen 7 Diagram 1Choice of packaging type is made on the basis of a series of trade-offs between many factors, particularly between the amount of packaging and likely product wastage. Manufacturers of goods look for a balance between:

  • protecting their goods (the cost of damaged goods or the danger from spoilt foods is far worse for the environment than using a small amount of extra resources to make a stronger pack)    
  • protecting public health
  • protecting the environment
  • protecting themselves (by complying with legal demands on health and safety standards)
  • protecting their business by keeping their products competitively priced
  • providing what the consumer needs (easy opening packaging for the elderly, smaller portions for individuals who live alone, tamper evidence etc.)
  • providing presentation and branding
  • providing information about the goods.

Since 1961 the UK population has grown by 11% from 55 million to 60 million. In the same period, the number of households has grown much faster, by almost 50%. This has meant that the average household size has dropped from 3.1 to 2.3 inhabitants with a consequent huge increase in environmental impact. No matter how many inhabitants it has, each household needs hot water and heating. Most households now have a cooker, fridge, washing machine and a host of other appliances and gadgets.

Incpen 7 Diagram 2Cooking food has a much greater impact in smaller households. It takes almost the same amount of energy to boil one egg as it does to boil four at the same time. Large households are relatively efficient in terms of food. They buy larger sizes, eat more meals together and therefore per person they generate far less waste. A person living alone has roughly double the environmental impact of one who lives in a large household. Some requirements, particularly the demand for smaller-sized portions, means that the demand for packaging will grow rather than decline.

At the same time there are compensating developments that will tend towards reduced packaging. For example, many companies, especially in the retail sector, are increasingly designing all the packaging needed to protect goods (the packaging immediately containing the goods, the secondary or grouping. Packaging and the packaging used to transport the grouped packs) as complete systems. This has made more effective use of resources. Consumers are increasingly willing to buy concentrated products in lightweight refill packs for dilution at home. Companies are increasingly informing consumers about the choices available to them, enabling them to make informed decisions about the products they buy and how to use them efficiently.

In the 1970s there was an informal agreement between packaging chain companies in Europe that they would not use environmental issues as a marketing tool for competitive advantage, nor make environmental statements that might confuse consumers. The companies that formed INCPEN as a voluntary initiative operated at all stages in the supply chain.  Today, INCPEN’s 60 members are major international companies from all parts of the chain.  This cross-sectoral membership provides a unique “pool” of research facilities and knowledge and enables INCPEN to represent effectively its members’ views from a strong but impartial position.

INCPEN | Packaging and sustainable development
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