Plastic packaging and the ‘Seaspiracy Effect’

    As the dust settles on a challenging year for the print and packaging sector, we look ahead to what the future of the industry looks like. This, of course, focuses closely on sustainability. The environmental impact of packaging has been rapidly increasing in consumer awareness, and when it plays such an important role in commercial success, it’s remained top of the agenda for brands.

    What is particularly interesting to note is that we seem to be traversing a very different environment in terms of consumer engagement and proactive learning. ‘Sustainability’ is now far too vague a term – shoppers increasingly want to learn more about how their purchase decisions are protecting the earth’s natural resources.

    With this knowledge, consumers are now much more comfortable with technical terms and substrate names, that previously the packaging sectors has been at pains to simplify, such as PCR or PET and HDPE. Consumers want more detail, which means brands have a real opportunity to shout about the fantastic innovations in the packaging sector.

    In response to rising calls for more sustainable packaging, we are also seeing a number of initiatives come into play, designed to get brands and their print supply chains using resources and materials more effectively, in order to reduce waste. As well as the Carbon Zero emission targets set for 2050, which many independent bodies and organisations are aiming to pull forward to 2030, we are set to see initiatives such as the UK Plastic Packaging Tax, EPR reform and EU Packaging Levy begin to take effect.

    One of the critical talking points in the media and online today is Seaspiracy, a documentary that has proved incredibly popular since launching on Netflix in April. Interestingly, the documentary challenges much of the established conversation on plastics waste, including packaging.

    How does Seaspiracy move the conversation forward – and what messages does it send to packaging printers and brand owners?

    The Seaspiracy effect
    In exploring the new era of sustainability, we must stay aware of the evolving way that consumers are responding to plastics. Packaging has long been a sustainability scapegoat in media, but there is a change on the horizon.

    Launching to much fanfare on Netflix, Seaspiracy is a great reflection of current sustainability discourse. British filmmaker, Ali Tabrizi, and his team initially set out to uncover the extent of plastics waste in the seas and its impact on the environment. This is an understandable goal – we seem to be inundated with messages of microplastics and littering threatening our oceans.

    What the documentary uncovers is that media coverage is extremely disproportionate when it comes to the plastics, and there are much greater threats to the planet. Plastic straws are initially the focus of attention. When it becomes apparent that straws account for a minute percentage of marine plastics waste, much lower than fishing nets and equipment, the Seaspiracy team switches its attention to overfishing and illegal fishing practices, which have a far more damaging effect overall.

    In essence, Tabrizi initially targets plastics as a blanket category, but as we know, not all plastics are created equal. The conversation then moves swiftly on to a much more prominent challenge to our oceans. For many in the packaging industry, this will feel like an eerily familiar story.

    Substrates, manufacturing techniques and global logistics have come such a long way that plastics packaging today is almost unrecognisable, from biodegradable and compostable packaging through to fully recyclable flexible packaging and lower carbon emissions. The core issue remains with an inadequate waste infrastructure that all too often isn’t aligned to today’s most common packaging materials.

    What is the message for brands?
    There is powerful opportunity to build on the fresh conversations opened by Seaspiracy. Consumers are getting hands-on with eco-friendly packaging – but that doesn’t start and finish with materials.

    The packaging supply chain is under the microscope, and naturally this involves the packaging and label printing process. Shoppers are learning that packaging, in and of itself, is not the key issue in waste but they struggle to comprehend the sheer complexity of packaging and label production today.

    Importantly, brands do understand and herein lies the opportunity for brands to drive more meaningful sustainability dialogue, reducing their carbon footprint with packaging that propels sustainability strategies forwards.

    Historically, one of the distinct challenges for sustainable packaging is the resource, time and cost commitment to make it happen. At a time when brands must take every opportunity to maintain margin, packaging sustainability has stayed in the background.

    However, as we know from purchase behaviour and consumer studies, sustainable packaging has a key role to play in commercial success, which means it’s no longer a ‘nice to have’.

    Seaspiracy is reigniting consumer interest in sustainable packaging – particularly when it comes to being recyclable. One of the key ways to protect the oceans from plastics waste is with a more robust circular economy that reprocesses packaging rather than sending it to landfill. It’s no secret that the UK in particular struggles with a fragmented recovery and recycling system that’s not equipped to deal with the majority of plastics currently in use.

    There is, however, great opportunity to use the transition to sustainable flexible packaging as a springboard for change. Consumers are seeking actions they can take with their purchases, and alongside solutions such as composting, recycling is the most direct way to achieve this. Lightweight monopolymers make this simple and effective.

    In summary
    As we look to reignited consumer interest in packaging sustainability, brought to the forefront once again by Seaspiracy, it’s clear that sustainable packaging is still hot on the agenda for shoppers. What remains crucial, in light of continued media attention around plastics waste, is that we keep the dialogue moving forwards.

    Brand owners can – and should – be using these new conversations to highlight just how far packaging has come in terms of sustainability, which often isn’t covered in mainstream consumer media with the passion conveyed when vilifying the packaging industry.