Reducing the impact of print

Printed materials and product packaging create environmental problems when they are produced and disposed of, but simple steps can be taken to reduce the harmful impact. By Richenda Wilson

Producing an item of printed material, from tree felling to printing and distribution, generates its own weight in carbon dioxide. If you add transport to and decomposition in landfill, the figures for greenhouse gas emissions can rise to several tonnes for each tonne of paper or board.

Print jobs can be made more ethical, however, says David Gask, managing director of Polar Print Group. Sourcing recycled materials or those from sustainable forests; using low-alcohol and vegetable oil-based inks; reducing the chemicals used in the plate production process; turning machines off when they are not in use; avoiding lamination, which renders material virtually impossible to recycle, can all help to minimise the environmental impact of printing. In turn these moves also help to raise clients’ CSR credentials.

Last August, print management company Charterhouse launched CarbonNeutral Print Production in partnership with the Carbon-Neutral Company. This allows Charterhouse’s clients (which include Powergen, T-Mobile, Sony and Shell) to measure the CO2 emissions of any print job and neutralise the effect by investing in carbon-friendly projects.

The packaging problem
At least the recycling of paper and printed products is now well established in the UK. The area coming under increasing scrutiny these days is packaging. A quarter of all rubbish put out by UK households is retail packaging – reducing this figure is vital. Carbon dioxide emissions demand it; consumers (encouraged by high-profile campaigners such as The Independent newspaper and environment minister Ben Bradshaw) demand it; and legislation, such as The Producer Responsibility Obligations (Packaging Waste) Regulations and The Packaging Waste Directive, demand it.

The good news is that there are many ways to reduce packaging and increase recycling. Giant leaps have been made recently in the area of lightweighting. While some of these are small steps, they can amount to substantial quantities of materials. By making the steel in its tins just 0.02mm thinner, Heinz is saving 1,400 tonnes of steel a year, for example.

Adnams recently redesigned its beer bottles to make them 30% lighter, reducing the brewery’s glass usage by 642 tonnes a year. The resulting bottle retains its design integrity, explains marketing director Steve Curzon, and is not only lighter and cheaper but stronger too, as the glass is more evenly distributed.

Similar moves are taking place in the area of plastic bottles and film packaging, where Marks & Spencer, for example, is rolling out a new sealing technology for its salad bags, making them look more attractive while using less material.

More substantial savings can be made by reconsidering the ways materials are delivered to consumers. Bigger packs mean less packaging per tonne of product. Concentrated forms, as Unilever and Procter & Gamble are both reconsidering for washing detergents, use less packaging, but are easier for consumers to carry.

Moves are also being made in the area of self-dispensing, whereby products are offered loose and customers use simple packaging provided by the retailer.

The self-dispensing solution?
The UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and James Ross Consulting recently produced an extensive report into self-dispensing systems. It looked at existing systems for grocery, beauty, and DIY and garden products in the US, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and conducted a UK consumer attitude survey, concluding that self-dispensing systems could contribute to significant reductions in retail packaging and the food households throw away.

Consumer fears about contamination can be reduced by using gravity feed bins for food and bin-and-scoop systems for non-food items. Concerns over lack of information (nutritional, sell-by dates, and so on) have been resolved overseas and could be easily addressed in the UK, says the report.

Consumers like the idea of selecting only the quantity needed and the reduction in packaging. Value for money is not a major issue, though consumers expect self-dispensed product to be cheaper. In the US, consumer cost savings of 30-60% are common. For retailers, self-dispense systems offer potential savings of £30,000 – £136,000 per 1 million units of pre-packed products from packaging material savings, distribution savings, and Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) savings/cost avoidance.

Recycling has its part to play too. Local authorities are accepting more materials in their recycling schemes and better labelling is helping consumers to identify what can be recycled. 

Packaging is also starting to use more recycled materials. In 2005, Boots started to use recycled PET (rPET) in the bottles for its Ingredients toiletries range, after which sales rose 70%. “We can’t claim the rise is down to the rPET, because it’s also down to special offers and changes in competitor pricing,” says Andrew Jenkins, sustainable development manager at Boots, “but it hasn’t hindered sales.” The company is now rolling out rPET packaging for its Botanicals range and selected food trays and packs.

Other companies may be encouraged to adopt rPET packs as UK production steps up to meet demand. Until now, all plastics have been exported for recycling with the recyclate then imported again. However, in December, the UK’s first food-grade plastic recycling plant will open in Dagenham, producing an annual 12,000 tonnes of trays, punnets, bottles and the like.

Compostable materials are also on the rise, especially for food, where the pack can be put in the same bin as any leftover or rotten contents. Many new biodegradable materials are also in development made from sustainable crops such as wood pulp and maize.

Design company Dragon has created a biodegradable pouch for Daylesford Organic Milk. “In addition to being lightweight and taking up very little space in landfill,. the material is a biodegradable polymer made using chalk,” explains Dragon consultant Luke Vincent.

However, the use of biodegradable packs brings its own problems as the UK has a commitment to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.

Products vary so enormously that you need to have as many different types of packaging as possible, says Jane Bickerstaffe, director of Incpen, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment. But she believes some moves to minimise packaging may be misplaced as they can generate extra food waste. She points out that people complain about the wrap used for cucumbers, insisting that they have natural packaging in the form of skin, “but that 1.5g of film can extend the shelf life from three days to 14, so that to me is a good use of resources”.

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