Packaging technology has evolved to the point where it achieves exceptional performance, but perhaps at the expense of sustainability. David Little, Chair of the Irish Packaging Society, asks how everyone, from consumers to packaging designers, needs to change to ensure we leave a better world for our children.

In my opinion, current food packaging specifications are as good as they have ever been for the protection, preservation, containment, information, legal requirements, filling, use, transport and sale of the products, at the lowest possible unit price! However, the problem is that one important part of the ‘Definition of Packaging’ is often missing – “To have consideration for environmental matters”. Are all our packaging choices sustainable?

This has, in many cases, been forgotten or judged to be less important than commercial considerations. In fairness, a large part of the world has been aware of climate change for over 40 years, thanks to the effects of increasing industrialisation, and has done nothing about it. In fact, we’ve all ignored the problem, while predominantly chasing convenience, variety, low prices, market share and above all, shareholder value. It is now time to get real and wake up to the necessary changes, in order to help slow down the effects of global warming and our impact on the ecology of our world. We all need to do our bit. Consumers will increasingly push and judge companies and corporations by their reaction to the sustainable challenges and the goals of the Circular Economy. Therefore, companies need to take this seriously… or take the risk of being called out!

As consumers, we need to think more carefully about the products we are buying; where they are sourced, the perceived packaging benefit and necessity of that packaging, based on when and how we will use the product. For instance, why buy a packet of bacon /rashers in the clear formed tray with the (hard to open) film top (MAP packaging) if you are going to use them that day or the next. Fine if you intend to freeze them for a couple of weeks, but it is wasteful to buy in that format if they are to be used immediately. Better to buy loose bacon at the butcher counter. The same thinking can be applied to many packaging formats and products.

Our grandparents didn’t have strawberries available all year around. Should we go back to seasonal products? Think of the carbon footprint of flying some fruits halfway around the world. Is this sustainable?


Another question we should ask is how easily can we segregate / recycle the packaging from the products we are buying? Is there an existing recycling waste stream and therefore, will the packaging have a second life? PET bottles, for instance, are made from plastic, but they are widely recycled and what is the alternative? Realistically, glass or aluminium are the only alternatives, but glass is much heavier, so will have a greater carbon footprint in regard to transport costs. Increased usage of aluminium cans would require more mining of Bauxite etc, which could bring its own difficulties; although aluminium is excellent to recycle, I’m sure the market couldn’t cope if everything switched from PET. PET and other plastics are also making great progress with higher recycled contents or Bio-plastic offerings. We should realise that not all plastics are inherently bad and that they are often needed, to contain, preserve etc. In some cases, there is no alternative (yet) and in others, the plastic can go on to have a second life after recycling.

We should think of good segregated recycled waste as a resource. After all, a lot of resources have been used to make the original pack and therefore, if it has a second life, it has an inherent ‘raw material’ value, and can help to reduce the need for high levels of virgin materials, again benefiting the environment.


In regard to brand definition and market share, we have endless levels of print techniques and packaging innovations being applied to packs, particularly in the FMCG sector: foil blocking, matt lacquers, spot UV, laminates with long shelf lives, Haptic (soft touch/tactile) varnishes. We see changes such as foil and paper wrappers being replaced by flow wraps, stand-up pouches replacing tin cans, injection moulded tubs replacing tins for sweets or biscuits etc. It is amazing what’s possible nowadays, but it is also ironic to me that many of these changes could be seen as less environmentally friendly and actually make some packaging harder to recycle or reuse.

Will the marketers be soon forced to consider more carefully the environmental impact of their latest designs? Customers are fickle and it’s hard to know how they will react to a simpler pack format and design? Will big brands take the first step or will it be left up to the smaller, more agile, possibly braver new brands to lead the way?


More sustainable options, particularly in plastics, will inevitably cost more, as Bio-inks and films are considerably more expensive, certainly until volumes grow.

We also need to ensure that there is good local waste management and recycling with local conversion capability, to reuse the waste and to ensure there is a real market for the potential products that can be produced from this waste. There’s no point trying to be super green and then shipping our beautifully segregated waste halfway around the world to a less developed economy, with a poorly developed waste handling infrastructure, while also adding hugely to the carbon footprint.

Television programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and others have done a lot to raise awareness of the problems that come from a poorly managed or under-developed waste management system. The serious issue of floating islands of packaging waste in our seas and water courses is abhorrent, but it is actually less of a packaging issue and more of a littering / waste management issue. Of course, better and more sustainable packaging and biodegradable film choices etc. would help, but only if there is proper waste management. There are, of course, other issues as well, such as micro and oxy plastics, but these are for another day.

I believe we (multi-nationals / modern economies) are certainly guilty of introducing or promoting a modern retail environment and supply chain, without, it seems, a care for advising or training people on how to manage sustainably the inherent waste stream that goes along with this economic profile.

Television programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II have done a lot to raise awareness of the problems that come from a poorly managed or under-developed waste management system.


Retailers, packers/fillers and manufacturing companies have a tough job ahead of them. They need to analyse all their current packaging and categorise it into different groupings of sustainable and unsustainable packaging and then look to available packaging alternatives. In some cases, there may not be alternatives as yet. It can take technology some time to catch up with a new demand.

The unsustainable packaging groups should be further split into those that can be ‘quick fixes’ and those planned for medium term and long-term changes. Don’t forget that to change a packaging substrate or format inevitably requires a great deal of work and trialling to ensure it meets as many of the required functions of the packaging as possible.

More sustainable options, particularly in plastics, will inevitably cost more, as Bio-inks and films are considerably more expensive, certainly until volumes grow. Another issue is that Bio-films, for instance, may need an entirely separate supply chain, as they will perform differently and have different shelf lives etc. These changes will impact on costs, on perhaps filling speeds and distribution networks etc., but we need to be determined to drive change and make progress.

This is a mine-field and I have raised more questions than answers. Any media based, glib, knee-jerk reactions or supposed quick fixes are inevitably understating the problem. Sensationalist headlines and politicians coming out with unfounded packaging solutions are also unhelpful


We need all stakeholders – the consumers, the producers, the multi-nationals, the politicians and governments – to agree a goal: to create a new approach, based on technical expertise, supported by legislation, that trains and educates people, that creates markets for waste and that supports recycling and reuse. We need action and buy-in from ordinary people. We need education and a clear plan, so people can feel progress is being made and that their small contributions matter.

As recent activism shows – led by the very impressive 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg – our children are starting to realise the state of the world we are likely to leave them…. and they are not impressed

I was recently reminded by my 16-yearold son, of an old Native American proverb, that said “The world was not given to us, by our parents… was lent to us, by our children”.
We all need to take action and start making sustainable daily choices, for the sake of our future.

We need all stakeholders to create a new approach, based on technical expertise, supported by legislation, that trains and educates people, that creates markets for waste and that supports recycling and reuse.


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About David Little

David Little is a qualified Print Technologist and Packaging Technologist with over 30 years’ experience in the print/ packaging sector, across all substrates. These include flexible film laminates, cartons, labels, corrugated and rigid plastics, as well as in Repro/ Brand and printing capital equipment. He has extensive print experience, across all processes and is very involved in supplier audits, press passes, NPD packaging process, SOP development, QC problem solving, brand development, colour control and packaging training (bespoke short courses). David lectures in packaging for The Packaging Society in the UK and on the Irish DIT accredited, level 7, CPD Diploma in Packaging Technology. He is Chair of The Irish Packaging Society and a Board Member of The Packaging Society (UK – IOM3). David is Managing Director of independent Packaging Consultants - Leonard Little & Associates Ltd. (Est 1976).