The volume of packaging waste continues to grow inexorably in Europe. An estimated 77.7 million tonnes of waste packaging was generated in Europe in 2018¹. But how can packaging be made environmentally friendly? Packaging expert Professor Michael Herrenbauer has some ideas. In the interview, the Dean of Studies in the Department of Packaging Technology at the Stuttgart Media University explains which packaging represents a future-proof solution.
Professor Herrenbauer, what is the future of packaging?
Michael Herrenbauer: In the future, packaging should be considered right from the start of product development. Unfortunately, that is not typically the case at present. The purpose of packaging is to protect the packaged product so that it does not spoil or become damaged. On top of this, the packaging materials and design should cause as little harm as possible to the environment in terms of how the packaging is manufactured, used and disposed of.
Accordingly, for packaging to be fit for the future, it must first be possible to manufacture and use it in a manner that conserves resources. And after it has been used, ideally multiple times, it should be possible to return it to the cycle of recyclable resources as part of a cradle-to-cradle economy. The recyclability of the packaging is a key future criterion. After all, this will ensure that people still treat packaging as a valuable raw material after it has been used and do not throw it away as worthless rubbish, without regard for our environment in the worst case scenario.
Given the ever-increasing mountains of packaging being produced and the enormous disposal problems resulting from this – where do we currently stand with making packaging fit for future purpose?
M. H.: Many companies are already rethinking and changing their packaging. This involves considering how their current packaging might be improved upon from an environmental perspective in terms of a cradle-to-cradle economy while retaining its protective, explanatory, informational and/or advertising function. Practical experience shows that no one type of packaging will prevail in the future – there will be various types of future-proof packaging in keeping with the diversity of products on offer. I feel that initial progress has already been made as part of this transformation process. But as you’ve already mentioned, it’s not just the quality of the packaging that is a factor. The amount of packaging is the problem. To minimise this, we need a change in thinking among consumers.
Why do consumers need to change the way they think?
M. H.: Shopping involves some deeply rooted beliefs and long-established behavioural patterns, as well as expectations and actions that speak to our innermost reward system. Just to give you two examples: we know from our research work that consumers are more likely to buy cleaning products if they come in bright-white packaging. Packaging that is explicitly environmentally friendly may appear greyish or greenish because of its recycled content and tends to get left on the shelf. It seems that pure white packaging conveys a better cleaning effect. Or take high-quality products, of any kind: consumers are reluctant to buy them if they are offered in lower-quality packaging. I call this the schizophrenia of today’s shopping behaviour: consumers want products to come in more environmentally friendly packaging, but then don’t buy them.
What has to happen for this to change?
M. H.: I would expect the most powerful stimulus for change to come from the policy area. We already have standards in relation to packaging; the German Packaging Act with its licensing requirements is a step in the right direction. The price difference between ecologically harmful and sustainable packaging has to be reduced. Policy-backed support for environmentally friendly packaging would certainly be useful and effective in this regard. We need incentives that will encourage manufacturers, sellers and shoppers to put only the necessary packaging on the market – in the most sustainable quality possible.
How can we be environmentally aware when shopping right now?
M. H.: Products from your own region have not been transported large distances, so they have a lower carbon footprint. If they are consumed promptly, they often don’t need elaborate packaging. Organic food boxes delivered to consumers’ doors are the best example. The food is provided loose or with minimal packaging and the boxes are often recyclable. On average, the distance to be covered to each customer is just 700 metres in this instance. In contrast, the usual commute to a supermarket in Germany is almost three times as long at 2,000 metres. If we use a car for this, then the carbon footprint for that shopping is much worse again.
Packaging per se is not a crime against the environment. Although often criticised, even plastic deserves a chance, namely as a sustainable material in a cycle of recyclable resources. In many cases, plastic packaging ensures that a product can be recycled in the first place. If it is properly designed with respect for the environment, our green conscience can be clear as consumers.
I would advise companies to keep increased packaging waste in mind during production in order to avoid unnecessary packaging. At the same time, this appeals to consumers’ growing environmental awareness and thus dampens anti-consumerism sentiment.
Thank you, Professor Herrenbauer, for this look ahead to the packaging of the future.
About the Author
The freelance journalist, Doreen Brumme, a #motherof4 whose work focuses on organic issues, shares her thoughts on how to enjoy a green lifestyle at work, in school, and at home via her blog, doreenbrumme.de