EFIA questions whether its now plastic fantastic or fibre heaven?

The recent media furore surrounding the use of single use plastics and plastic packaging in general has created significant debate about the impact on the packaging and print industry within the membership of the European Flexographic Industry Association (EFIA)

With flexography being a dominant packaging printing technology in the UK & Ireland, and well over 40 per cent of print volumes being attributed to plastic substrates (according to Smithers PIRA), EFIA members are certainly in the midst of a significant storm, which may change the flexo industry forever if brands decide to respond to the consumer and media out pouring.

We’ve already seen banning of black plastic trays from Waitrose due to their inability to be identified by plastics sorting systems within the UK recycling infrastructure and a commitment to plastic free aisles by Iceland. Combine the so called ‘latte tax’, banning of plastic straws by restaurants, adoption of deposit return systems and carrier bag taxes and the whole situation is escalating at a pace few anticipated.

At EFIA, we understand both sides of what is a contentious argument and our position as a board is that all materials have their merits and detractions when you consider the definition of sustainability. Of course, our membership represents a breadth of packaging types from corrugate to labels and flexible and rigid plastics but our view is that the argument playing out in the media at the moment is extremely distorted. Although well intentioned, we have a long way to go if we are to avoid further reactions by the industry.

The reality is that depending on whether we look through the lens of overall carbon footprint, water footprint, energy use, recyclability, compostability or biodegradability…. the list goes on, the argument can be swung in many directions between pack types and substrates.

However, the real issue is the collective inability of the entire packaging and print industry to educate consumers on the point that packaging is in fact a green technology in itself i.e. reducing waste and protecting and preserving the carbon used to produce products in the first place; this is sadly being missed by everyone.

By means of example, the carbon footprint of a fillet steak on the consumer’s dinner table has taken huge amounts of resource and energy to produce before it’s even packed. According to INCPEN, packaging represents less than 5 per cent of the overall carbon footprint of a typical food product, when assessed from a cradle to grave perspective. The transport, refrigeration and cooking of the product is far more onerous than the lightweight, micron-thin carton or plastic tray its packed in.

To put this in perspective, if every family reduced their driving time each year and simply saved one tank of fuel consumption, this carbon saving would be in excess of their entire year of plastic packaging consumption.

We’ve therefore got something wrong. We’re nibbling at the edges of our consumerist world rather than tackling the key issues that are going to make the difference to our planet over the long term. Humans are at fault, not the materials we select.

As we’ve heard many of our colleagues utter, waste in its many forms is as a result of poorly thought out human activity. Littering, marine waste and ecological damage occur because society is not caring, understanding or simply ignorant of what it is doing to the environment. We all have obligations as human beings to act responsibly and this part of the argument seems to be lost in many of the knee jerk reactions currently underway.

The real focus of the debate should sit with education to drive human behaviour change. In addition there must be new investment in common systems and processes to enable consumers to dispose of their waste responsibly.  At the last count, there were 224 different recycling systems across the local authorities in the UK.  One can only feel sorry for the confused consumer who is trying their best!

Minimisation of initial resource use, a reduction in end of life waste materials, growth in effective recycling programmes and optimisation of the circular economy must be achieved. However, at EFIA we fundamentally believe this all starts and ends with reasonable government, media and consumer understanding of the reality of the situation which is simply lacking.

Without adding to the voracity of the debate, the resulting challenge for the flexo industry is now going to be how to adapt to a new reality. The supply chain is going to want to challenge and develop new packaging concepts, depending on where their beliefs and preferences (and pressures!) lie. As a result, converting capacity and business efficiency is undoubtedly going to suffer whether its involved in a major upswing or downswing in new business.

Unfortunately, there are very few packaging or print groups handling both plastic and fibre substrates today. The exchange of materials, applications and requirements for new product developments are going to stretch already thin resources in what is undoubtedly a margin-constrained market.

Whilst the paper and board industry may be rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of the demise of plastics in the short term, it’s no mean feat to translate chilled and frozen food and drink applications into fibre based substrates without increased pack design complexity. This will certainly raise further challenges for the already burdened recycling industry.Of course, current world capacity for paper would also be unable to handle the additional packaging volumes and prices are already escalating so a perfect storm is potentially brewing.

To put it mildly the entire packaging converting and print industry is going to be under pressure to respond, innovate and deliver capacity in anger in order to meet this undoubted pressure for change.

As the leading voice of the flexographic print industry, the board of EFIA will be working with a range of industry associations and bodies to understand the potential risks, challenges and opportunities for its members. We will also be entering into the debate about packaging myths in the hopes of supporting a consumer education programme for the benefit of all our members.

To find out more information about EFIA and its activities, please visit www.efia.uk.com