Packaging in the next decade – multi-sector interest

United Kingdom
Whilst this article is about changes to packaging and will be of direct interest to the retail sector, its significance is much wider. The commentary on the recycling and recovering of packaging will be of keen interest to the waste, cleantech and energy sectors.

Strategic review

On 9 June 2009, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (“Defra”) published a strategic review of packaging policy in conjunction with the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (“BIS”), the Devolved Administrations, and with input from stakeholders. ‘Making the most of packaging: A strategy for a low-carbon economy’ (the “Strategy”) sets the direction for packaging policy for the next ten years. ( The contents are set in the context of a resource efficient and low carbon economy. The Strategy generally extends to the whole of the UK.  
Broader implications beyond the packaging supply chain

The key aims of the Strategy are to overturn the historical trend of overall packaging growth, optimise the resource-efficiency of packaging, and improve waste packaging recycling rates.  The Strategy explores the whole lifecycle of products and identifies developments for the waste management sector and particular materials. It states that depending on the material involved, packaging waste should ideally be recycled or have energy recovered from it and expressly acknowledges the potential need for a network of anaerobic digestion and other energy from waste plants to be developed. Otherwise the sophistry of existing waste collection and sorting facilities should be increased. 

Trigger for the review

Two triggers are identified for the policy review: addressing consumer concern over packaging levels and the requirement for policy to contribute to greater resource efficiency and reduce the environment impact of the supply chain. 

The vision

The Strategy outlines a packaging policy vision: to encourage optimal use of resources across the whole packaging supply chain and to maximise the recycling of waste packaging.

“Optimising packaging”

Minimisation of the environment impact of packaging over its whole lifecycle, without compromising the ability to protect products, will be achieved by:

  • designing packaging in line with sustainability principles - with re-usability, recyclability or recovery in mind as a standard;

  • potential Government promotion of refillable and reusable packaging;

  • promotion of best practice in packaging recyclability and suitability for specific forms of recovery where appropriate e.g. anaerobic digestion

  • delivering real reductions in packaging, under existing and new voluntary agreements; and

  • marketing innovation and development to meet the growing demand for re-usable and recycled packaging, across all types of packaging.

Implementation will be effected by (amongst other examples):

  • Government working with other bodies to raise the profile of eco-design and increase its uptake by business;

  • Government, the Devolved Administrations and their agencies providing a lead through public procurement;

  • Raising consumer awareness;

  • Waste & Resources Action Programme (“WRAP”) developing a successor to the current Courtauld Commitment; 

  • Identifying priority sectors for packaging reductions and voluntary agreements UK-wide on packaging minimisation for the period 2010-2015. 

The first wave of priority sector requirements is timetabled for 2011.

Maximising Recycling

The Strategy states that recycling uses less energy than manufacturing from virgin materials, thus reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions. Consequently policy should work to maximise the recycling of waste packaging through:

  • more recycling by householders - facilitated via recycling schemes that are easy to use and collect all of the main packaging materials;

  • local authorities and businesses treating waste packaging as a resource, leading to more recycling by businesses and an emphasis on quality in household collection and sorting; and

  • improving the current UK recycling rates to those achieved by the best EU performers.

Implementation is to be by:

  • instigating material-specific recycling strategies;

  • modifying and increasing the transparency of the current producer funding system so that revenues are more visible to local authorities and producers;

  • more investment by packaging producers including potential changes to existing producer responsibility laws; 

  • Improving the quality of recyclates via income sharing contracts and raising standards at material recoveries facilities;

  • incentivising closed loop uses in relation to plastics and glass;

  • encouraging more effective collection and sorting;

  • greater use of partnerships by local authorities  and review of tendering processes.

Measuring the impact of packaging: weight v carbon

Most of the EU legislation including the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (94/62/EC) (the “Packaging Directive”), set out targets based on weight of packaging. This was thought to be relatively simple to understand and to measure against. However, the Strategy identifies that the current methods of measurement are limited in their ability to address whole lifecycle and climate change impacts and do not fit neatly with wider carbon-based targets. Consequently the Government will consider and consult upon the best method for measuring the environment impact of packaging including evaluating a move from weight-based to carbon-based targets. This will also require consistency in evaluating the carbon footprint of products. In order to avoid the burden of different reporting regimes there is a clear statement in the Strategy that there is no intention of moving to mandatory carbon-based targets for packaging before the Packaging Directive is reviewed (likely to start at the earliest in 2014). 

Implementing the Strategy

The Strategy provides an outline implementation timetable of action points and responsibilities. As some of the proposals will require changes to legislation, consultation will necessarily follow. Those affected should keep abreast of proposals. 


Fundamental changes across all sectors are likely to be required in order to attain the GHG reduction targets in the Climate Change Act 2008.  This is only one example of potentially many more, where existing law and policy may have to be realigned to become fit for purpose in a low carbon, low resource and more efficient economy.