The world has changed enormously since INCPEN was established in 1974. Yet today, some of the issues the packaging industry has to deal with seem depressingly familiar.
One of the first challenges we faced in 1974 was the growing problem of litter, with environmental groups blaming packaging. They were also critical of increasing consumerism and people’s changing lifestyles but they criticised packaging instead because this put the blame on industry, not individuals.
Litter, especially marine litter, remains a problem and packaging is still singled out as the main culprit.
The reason given by politicians for introducing charges for carrier bags is typically to prevent them ‘spoiling the landscape’ as litter. The facts are conveniently ignored. According to the latest (2014) survey of litter by Keep Britain Tidy, commissioned by INCPEN, carrier bags were less than 1% of littered items.
Companies will have to explain the role of packaging and that it has a net positive benefit
But the charge has set a precedent for adding costs to packaging and there are now campaigns to impose deposits on drinks containers and taxes on other types of packaging.
No one points out that there is a huge difference between a carrier bag charge, which can be avoided simply by using your own bag, and deposits or taxes which everyone has to pay.
In response to the public’s negative perception of packaging, policymakers are tending to propose measures that typically focus on used packaging – ever higher recycling targets; recyclable packaging favoured over equally resource-efficient packaging that is not worth recycling; calls for mandated recycled content; special treatment for biodegradable materials and reusable packaging.
The packaging industry needs to continue to develop clever packaging that responds to changing demographics, lifestyles and shopping habits and helps make supply chains more sustainable.
But, if companies want the freedom to be able to use the best pack for the job, they will also have to explain the role of packaging and that it has a net positive environmental benefit in protecting more resources than it uses , preventing far more waste than it generates and enabling people to live the way they do today.
INCPEN’s key objectives when it was established included: showing that packaging plays a critical role in enabling and improving the way people live; quantifying its social and environmental impact in the context of its functions; and identifying where it can be improved.
These aims remain just as relevant today. Packaging has a great story to tell – the challenge as always will be to make sure policymakers appreciate it.
Jane Bickerstaffe is director at INCPEN