Within the context of the Green Deal action plan, Europe's economy is to become sustainable by 2050. An economy is sustainable when everything runs in a closed circle. A circular economy only markets products with packaging whenever this is necessary. Packaging must be made of sustainable, recyclable materials. The stationery industry is therefore already today faced with the challenge of using less packaging and substituting tried and tested plastics-based wrapping materials.
To save on packaging materials in the future, the issue of packaging must be thought of in a new light. After all, product packaging is an all-rounder: It protects the product, helps to store and transport it, while making its use and handling easier. Moreover, it provides information about the product's quantity and type of ingredients, how to use it, its shelf life, how to store it, and its maker.
Manufacturers, retailers and consumers all have specific demands for packaging. Consumers hope to locate a product with the help of its packaging in the retailer's offering (standing out from the crowd of products), read about and understand product details, be able to retrieve the product easily from the shelf, conveniently take it home, store and keep it there, open it and – possibly – close it again, completely empty it and ultimately, dispose of it in an environmentally-friendly manner. This last aspect is becoming increasingly important. Sustainable packaging has become a critical factor in consumers’ buying decisions: a solid three-quarters (77 per cent) of Germans wish to have packaging materials that are eco-friendly and conserve resources and ideally prefer the use of as little packaging material as possible¹.
Next to its practical side, packaging is to contribute towards an agreeable buying experience that evokes something of a connection with the brand and its values. Still, a growing number of consumers wants to satisfy their green conscience when making a purchase.
From the perspective of most consumers as well as lawmakers, the manufacturer is clearly responsible for the sustainability of its product packaging. If manufacturers live up to this, consumers will reward their effort, even if this means paying a higher price. Moreover, consumers consider retailers accountable and demand that they act accordingly. If retailers remain idle, consumers often will dispose of unwanted packaging right there and then at the store. A total 5.7 million tons of waste packaging was produced in Germany in 2018 that landed either in the yellow bin (Germany's recycling system for plastic waste), in bottle banks or in paper banks – almost the same amount as the year before. Only three quarters of these materials are de facto recycled. The remaining quarter is energetically reused, meaning burnt. That is anything but a circular economy.
It is (still) quite common in the stationery to wrap many items. And more: Quite often, a wrapped item has an additional external packaging. It is here exactly that manufacturers can launch their strategies for saving packaging materials and develop, produce and wrap products as such that no additional external packaging is required. Or even better: for products to reach the market free from any packaging. This would be easy to do for fountain pens – not so much so for the required ink cartridges. Larger, recyclable economy packs are one way here. However, consumers might need to consider returning to the ink bottle again. For paper products, this is a different story: They depend on a dry, paper-happy climate – during production, during transportation en route to the retailer, during storage and on the shelves at the store. Non-wrapped printing paper, for example, is not only at risk from exposure to excessive humidity – handling individual loose sheets would also be problematic. Sleeves might be a solution here.
Ecoconscious consumers, however, also care about the actual type of packaging material: Even today, they prefer packaging made from paper, cardboard and cartons and reject plastic. However, when switching from plastic packaging to paper or even to new packaging made from starch or the like, consumers often lose out on one thing: the ability to see the product clearly. Manufacturers and retailers must make up for this loss of transparency by, for example, making paper packaging free from plastic while providing information about the product "transparently" or, for example, creating displays showing photos of the product that are placed either directly at the point of sale or are available digitally. In totality, these measures help to restore consumer confidence both in the product as well as in the retailer and the manufacturer.
The circular economy therefore needs everyone to do their part. Lawmakers may set the ball rolling by formulating default requirements for manufacturers that start with choosing sustainable, recyclable raw materials for products and encompass both a lasting design in addition to being reparable, refillable and lastly, recyclable. But to keep this going requires a relationship of trust between the manufacturer, the retailer, and the consumer.
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