The recent criticism of brands such as Pringles and Lucozade Sport for having packaging that is a “nightmare” to recycle brings into sharp focus the critical role that packaging plays in the modern world.
Simon Ellis, Chief Executive of the UK Recycling Association, criticised the design industry and challenged it to work harder to move away from the “Pringles factor” i.e. where packaging uses several different materials – some which may be recyclable and some which may not – but in combination make it harder for recycling machines to separate.
The challenge is fair – yet the issue is not new.
In 2016, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted how the UK threw away an estimated 2.5bn coffee cups every year – with many consumers mistakenly placing their used containers into the recycling bin in the belief that their paper cup was a “green” choice. It wasn’t!
The result? Much of this packaging simply ends up in landfill sites – prompting coffee shop brands such as Costa to trial reCUP paper cups in a bid to boost recycling rates and address the problem.
And the problem is indeed a sizeable one. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in 2014 the UK produced 11.4 million tonnes of packaging waste, of which just 7.3 million tonnes was recycled or recovered. There is clearly room for improvement.
Whilst in this instance Pringles have been singled out for direct criticism, in truth the challenge to manufacturers of producing packaging that is desirable, functional and kind to the environment is an industry wide issue that goes beyond individual brands. It affects everything from everyday cleaning spray bottles and black plastic food trays to premium products such as whisky packaging.
Understandably the manufacturers have been quick to defend their products.
A spokesperson for Pringles pointed out how the iconic tube was specifically designed to help protect the contents and minimise the risk of the chips being crushed in transit. Similarly, the re-sealable lid means a longer shelf-life for the product and so helps to minimise food waste.
This whole debate raises an interesting issue. Sometimes, apparently ‘wasteful’ packaging has been deliberately designed for a very specific functional reason – but sometimes that reason may not always be obvious to consumers from the outset.
For example, the ‘air’ contained within a packet of crisps is not necessarily the manufacturer trying to cheat the public. Instead the use of an insert gas such as nitrogen helps to prevent the food spoiling too quickly as well as protecting the contents from potential damage or rough handling whilst in transit.
Similarly, a manufacturer may seek to reduce its carbon footprint by reducing the weight of a glass container – a laudable objective. Yet whilst this may seem like the right thing to do, it may damage the brand and be a sub-optimal decision if the reason for the pack change is misunderstood by the public – and instead consumers perceive that the packaging now somehow feels less ‘premium’ as it is lighter, which in turn means they begin to doubt the quality of the contents.
These simple examples highlight the complexity of getting the packaging puzzle right – and how by simply removing one single element of a pack design may have unintended consequences.
At Marketing Sciences, we know and understand from our extensive years of packaging experience that the most successful packs typically need to deliver and perform on many different levels.
Wherever you sit on the great packaging debate, there is clearly a delicate balance to be struck with any design. The ideal pack needs to be simultaneously attractive, stand-out and communicate key brand messages – whilst at the same time combining functional benefits with environmental considerations.
In their defence, manufacturers have been taking this environmental challenge seriously with plenty of innovation over recent years – as witnessed by the launch of everything from ‘compressed’ aerosol deodorant cans to the prevalence of instant coffee pouch refills.
So, what of the future?
Arguably with the rise of the ‘internet-of-things’ the challenges facing manufacturers to meet their environmental responsibilities will become even greater as packaging gets ‘smart’ – raising further questions about the recycling feasibility of everyday products.
For example, The Guardian recently reported how in the run-up to this year’s Super Bowl, US snack company Frito-Lay launched a limited run of microchipped bags of tortilla chips capable of sensing alcohol on a user’s breath and, if instructed, called them an Uber taxi home!
A world of ‘intelligent packaging’ is not a world of science fiction – it is here today and its usage is gathering pace – predicted to be worth $52bn (£40bn) by 2025.
For manufacturers, the potential benefits and appeal of smart packaging are easy to see – with the lure of a better integrated and more efficient supply chain. For consumers there is the potential convenience and simplicity of your ready-meal pack telling your oven how to cook at the correct setting. In theory, it all sounds great!
Yet for the environment, the question remains of what happens when you throw away that packaging – and all those smart chips and electronic packaging tags enter the recycling chain? The technology may be new, but the challenge to manufacturers will remain the same as it does today with a tube of Pringles i.e. how to balance the potentially competing needs of packaging appeal and functionality – with environmental and social responsibility.
Crispin Boon is a Research Director in the Packaging & Design team at Marketing Sciences Unlimited.