Last reviewed 12 December 2017

Jane Bickerstaffe was Director of packaging industry council, INCPEN for over 26 years and helped to pioneer some of the industry’s major advances in packaging recycling, recovery and ecodesign. But the industry still has some way to go to improve materials efficiency and packaging recovery rates. In this interview, she talks to John Barwise about recent developments in the industry and the drive to improve packaging efficiency, increase recycling and minimise waste.

INCPEN is the packaging industry’s primary research body. Can you explain a little about your work and how research is helping to improve the industry’s understanding of the wider impacts of packaging on the environment?

The companies that established INCPEN in 1974 had real foresight. They were unique (at that time) in wanting to identify ways to improve the environmental and social impact of their packaged products, in bringing the whole supply chain together to work collaboratively, and in appreciating that decisions need to be holistic and based on science. The research it has done since then and the guidance it has produced have influenced businesses, regulators and opinion formers.

Despite all the best efforts of INCPEN and others, packaging waste remains stubbornly high across Europe with over 160kg of waste being generated per person every year, and the UK’s packaging recovery rate is in the bottom third of all EU countries. Why do we produce so much packaging and why is our recovery performance worse than most of our European neighbours?

Well, packaging waste has actually reduced thanks both to technical developments that have allowed companies to use less material to provide the same or better protection for products and also to a huge increase in recycling. Packaging placed on the market per person in the UK (just over 160kg) is well below the average EU-15 of 173kg and 69% of it is recovered.

UK recycling rates are similar to other EU countries. They are slightly below the EU-15 average but it’s not possible to make direct comparisons. Each country counts its rate in its own way. Some count waste collected for recycling as recycled, others (including the UK) count what leaves a recycling centre. Even within countries, there are differences. Wales includes incinerator bottom ash in its recycling figures, which adds a few percentage points, England does not.

In addition, packaging prevents far more waste than it generates. In the 1980s up to 25% of white goods were damaged on the journey from factory to retailer. Better packaging has reduced this to only a few per cent.

The waste that has gone up is food waste. But packaging plays a positive role here too in helping keep food fresher for longer both in the supply chain and in homes. The resources used to grow and prepare food are 10 times more than the resources used to make the packaging that protects it. That’s a good investment.

Food waste from farm to checkout in developing countries can be as high as 50%, in Western Europe its well under 5% — largely thanks to sophisticated distribution systems, themselves dependent on packaging.

The introduction of Packaging Waste Regulations over 20 years ago was a turning point for packaging design, reuse and recycling. The concept is simple enough — producers and others down the supply chain, purchase packaging recovery notes (PRNs) and packaging export recovery notes (PERNs) certificates, as evidence to show they have met their recycling and recovery obligations. But the scheme has been criticised recently for its lack of transparency and growing dependency on export PERNs. Is the scheme still fit for purpose and how could it be improved?

Lack of transparency in the PRN/PERN system is sometimes criticised but so too is the lack of transparency in the contracts between waste management companies and local authorities. It is seldom clear who benefits from the value of the recyclate. It’s important to note that the regulations have been successful in enabling the UK to not just meet but to exceed the EU targets.

The question now is: what is a sensible recycling level to deliver a net environmental gain? As EU Commission Frans Timmermans said when he launched the Commission’s Circular Economy proposals targets have to be achievable and deliver benefit. There is no point setting higher targets if the energy and resource cost of collection, sorting and cleaning exceed the gain in resources.

The UK’s Packaging Waste Regulations come from the EU, as do all packaging regulations related to trade within the EU. As Britain prepares to leave the EU and the customs union, what are the likely impacts on the UK packaging industry, and are there likely to be negative impacts on UK packaging recycling and recovery targets?

I doubt there will be any impact on the packaging laws in the short term but longer term it may be useful for the UK to be able to set different targets if it wants to.

We could, for example, copy Belgium’s example of a simple collection system — paper, board in one box, metal containers, cartons and plastic bottles (no other plastics) in another, glass to bottle banks. Everything else is put in residual waste where over 20% has energy recovered from it.

Belgium claims the highest packaging recycling rate in Europe but, more importantly, it also produces the highest quality recyclate, which means it is in demand by European reprocessors at a comparatively high price.

It’s over 40 years since environmental campaigners, Friends of the Earth, dumped hundreds of empty Schweppes tonic bottles on the steps of Cadbury’s headquarters, in protest at the company’s decision to switch to a non-returnable bottling system. Since then, the deposit-return system has virtually disappeared. But the scheme seems to gain favour once again — Scotland looks set to introduce its own deposit-return scheme for drinks cans. Is this a good thing?

Friends of the Earth was protesting against the replacement of refillable glass bottles with non-refillable ones. Industry used to add a deposit to refillables because they needed to get them back for refilling. It was a resource-intensive process because the bottles had to be thick enough to withstand washing in caustic chemicals and repeated handling. Containers were heavy and needed robust cases and crates to group them. A lorry-load typically contained far more packaging than drink!

Despite the deposit, many consumers did not return the containers. As the trippage rate fell the whole system became more and more inefficient. Non-refillable containers that used less material were developed. These had far lower environmental impact in production and distribution, fewer lorries to deliver the same amount of drink, no contaminated effluent from cleaning plants and no return flow of collected containers in lorries from each retail outlet.

Bottle banks were introduced in accessible places like retail carparks for citizens to recycle the non-refillables. Today we have kerbside collection and bottle banks. Scotland is considering the impact if it were to introduce deposits. This will include the carbon impact of more lorries on the roads to collect deposit-bearing containers from special collection centres or retail outlets alongside the existing lorries collecting kerbside recyclates. It will not be possible to reduce kerbside lorries because paper and board and non-drink containers make up the bulk of recyclate.

In his autumn budget, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced proposals to consider a new tax on single-use plastics. The proposals will be open to consultation. How should the packaging industry respond to this new initiative?

I hope Government will clarify what issue it wants to address and then design solutions. At the moment, there seems to be a muddle between different aims, eg:

  • A tax is not similar to a charge on carrier bags. No one has to pay a bag charge if they take their own bag. It’s voluntary. Everyone would have to pay a tax on plastic items.

  • Despite claims that a bag charge would reduce the number littered, there is no evidence it has. Carrier bag litter has been less than 1% of total litter for many years. A study commissioned by INCPEN from Keep Scotland Beautiful compared litter before introduction of Scotland’s bag charge in 2014 and again in 2016 in the same 120 sites in a range of land use types. Before, littered bags were 0.1% (only eight bags) of total litter, after they were 0.2% (11 bags).

  • Marine plastics litter is a serious problem but over 85% of it originates from a few countries in the Far East. Those countries need controlled waste collection and disposal systems. In Western Europe, we need a holistic approach to preventing all types of litter. A UK behavioural charity, HUBBUB has had significant success in demonstrating this — Neat Streets.

Plastics packaging has received a lot of negative press in recent months, as highlighted in the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, where millions of tonnes of plastic debris threatens to decimate marine life in the world’s oceans. Plastics also has one of the worst records on recovery and recycling, compared to other. What actions should the plastics industry take to tackle this global problem?

Unlike other materials, only a small amount of plastics is needed to perform similar roles. That in effect is “pre-cycling” — using fewer resources at the start of a process. For packaging, this has advantages over other materials. It means less transport packaging, fewer lorries to transport the same amount of product, less space required in retailing and in the home store cupboard. But there is also sometimes too little material to justify using more resources to collect sufficient quantity to recycle.

The basic fact is that a material cannot be judged on its impact at just one stage of its life. If plastic has “one of the worst records” on recycling, it could equally be said that paper has “one of the worst records” on reducing resource use at source. All types of packaging — recyclable and non-recyclable, biodegradable and inert, reusable and non-reusable — has environmental pros and cons. None has a monopoly of environmental virtues.

All types of packaging need to be put into a controlled waste management system, whether they are recycled or not. Then they will not become litter. Litter is the problem that needs to be solved.

Blue Planet is a great programme but it was surprising to hear David Attenborough speculate, without any evidence being mentioned, that a dead whale calf may have died because its mother’s milk was poisoned by plastic. That seems like scare-mongering.

Packaging is indispensable for most of the products consumers and businesses buy. But the packaging industry seems to favour product branding and cost-saving over environmental concerns. Goods are often over packaged and contain multiple layers of plastics, foil and other materials which cannot be recycled. This is one of the main barriers to packaging recovery so what should the industry be doing to tackle this problem?

Packaging has to perform lots of functions. First and foremost it has to prevent waste of food and other goods by protecting them from the stresses and strains of being transported and handled. It also has to identify the product and carry information, much of which is required by law and it has to be simple and safe in use. If a company can do all that with minimum use of resources, it will cost less and therefore make it more competitive. It’s a win/win — fewer resources and lower costs.

Ecodesign is simply good environmental management. The circular economy seems to be an approach that builds on sustainable development, but unlike sustainable development which encompasses environmental, social and economic factors, it seems to be limited to just environmental.

It also has a strong focus on returning resources for further use after one life but seems to limit that to material resources. That may make sense for glass, metals and paper but not necessarily for plastics. If all resources are covered in a circular economy, that would mean oil-derived plastics should go back to oil. Like return loops for materials, energy is used to clean, sort and breakdown waste plastics. However, since over 90% of oil is used directly to generate energy to heat our homes and power vehicles, it is often more resource-efficient to avoid the cleaning and sorting stages of the 3% of oil used for plastics packaging and burn it directly to generate energy.

As Director of INCPEN for over 26 years, you must have seen some major changes in the packaging industry. What are the highlights of your career and what are your own plans for the future?

The biggest change has been the growth of environmental knowledge across the supply chain. Technology has had a major impact in enabling companies to respond to societal changes and to consumers’ needs and preferences.

I have learnt the importance of taking a holistic view of life and that if you poke the environment in one place it pops up again elsewhere. Addressing single issues is dangerous. The environmental case for favouring diesel as a lower carbon fuel was fine but it ignored the health effect of particulates. Scientists advised against action but were ignored by politicians who wanted to demonstrate their environmental credentials.

At times greenwash has been a diversion, but INCPEN has continued to get the facts and provide the evidence for genuine improvement. Its most recent guidance was prepared jointly with the Food & Drink Federation — Sustainability Checklist for Packaging. More than anything I have enjoyed explaining science in ways that everyone can understand.

I am continuing to provide advice on packaging and sustainability and also now have time for a variety of activities, currently including fighting a campaign to prevent a building development in a green open space in an urban area.

And finally, Christmas will soon be upon us. Its crisis time for local authorities as they brace themselves for the inevitable rise in packaging waste. What advice would you offer to domestic and business consumers to help reduce their packaging waste?

Good question. I reckon local authorities do a great job at Christmas and all through the year. My advice is simple — buy only what you need and, unless you are sure a gift is really needed, give experiences and time together instead.

Buy loose fruit and vegetables if you know you and your guests will actually eat them within a few days. Otherwise buy packaged food that will last. A plastic wrap on a cucumber extends its life in store from three to 14 days and more at home. Bananas and potatoes last a week longer kept in their bags. Much better for the environment to generate a few grams of used packaging in January than to throw wilted fruit and vegetables away before the New Year.

As I hope INCPEN has demonstrated over many years, business is a key player in helping to protect our environment and it is rarely the pantomime villain it is painted. Business now needs to raise the environmental debate to a higher plane than that of simplistic headlines and facile slogans. It is business that must continually stress the complexity and inter-relatedness of all environmental matters and ensure the dissemination of up-to-date, objective and scientifically accurate data.

The public is receptive to environmental considerations. Let us direct them into protecting the real not the perceived environment. It is up to business to take a proactive role and not restrict itself to a reactive, defensive footnote.