24 September 2012

The future of sustainable packaging

Exclusive interview with David Wiggins from Nestlé

In each issue of the NNFCC Newsletter we feature an expert voice in the field of biorenewables who will give their opinion on the latest developments in the field. In this issue, we talk exclusively to David Wiggins from Nestlé about waste management and the future of sustainable packaging in the UK.

Why is Nestle interested in sustainable packaging?

On a product lifecycle basis, packaging represents only a small percentage of our environmental impact. But packaging is also a highly visible issue for consumers and we are committed to reducing the impact of packaging on the environment, using a lifecycle approach.

We’ve put great effort into minimising packaging and we were the first company to introduce plastic-free easter egg packaging across our entire range. We’ve also designed our packaging so around 90 per cent is recyclable. However, whether our packaging is recycled or not, is up to the consumer. We believe local councils can do more to encourage recycling and put in place the mechanisms needed to tackle waste.

What is stopping us from recycling more?

It is not a question of technology – in most cases a technological solution exists – instead it is more about willingness and the costs of streamlining the recycling supply chain. It is also not simply a question of recycling more but also of recycling more efficiently. For example, the UK exports 100,000 tonnes of mixed plastics to be recycled every year because we don’t have the capacity to treat it. But if we were to build more plastics recovery facilities, like Biffa in Redcar, we could create hundreds of new jobs and bring money into the UK economy.

Is recycling always the most economically and environmentally sensible options for packaging materials?

The infrastructure for recycling single-material packaging is well-established but composite packaging – like laminates used for confectionery or pet food – is a particularly difficult to recycle waste stream.

Where it is not economical to recycle packaging waste we should consider energy recovery, like combined heat and power plants. Modern CHP plants are not dirty or polluting. When supported with a scientific life cycle assessment, strategically placed CHP plants can offer an opportunity to recover the calories stored in packaging materials.

Do bio-based materials have a role in Nestle’s future packaging plans?

We are exploring the potential of bio-based packaging in Nestle products but there remain serious issues around the use of food crops in packaging materials. We see the future of bio-based packaging in non-edible materials such as crop residues.

That being said we also need to be careful that using these residues does not have indirect effects. Consider the use cocoa husks in food packaging. Our farmers use cocoa husks to improve soil condition and water retention, so the use of such feedstocks in bio-based packaging would need careful consideration supported by a full life cycle assessment.

Has the UK taken the right approach to packaging waste management?

Waste management in the UK is complex but there is clearly room for improvement, both economically and environmentally. Politicians need to address the infrastructure challenges and fragmented approach to recycling that we face in the UK. We also want the government to join the dots to create a cohesive strategy for waste management in the UK that that works for the consumer and for the industry.

We understand change isn’t going to happen overnight, many councils are tied into 15, 20 or even 25 year waste management contracts. But we need to start the discussion now to ensure the right mechanisms are in place going forward.

Nestle want to stimulate the debate that needs to take place between policy makers and the packaging and waste industries. It will be a tough and complex debate but it’s one we urgently need to have.

Source: NNFCC, 2012-09-24.

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