The Toast Food team took the short trip up to Birmingham to visit the Packaging Innovations Show at the NEC, to take a look at the future of branded and inspirational packaging.

We do this to ensure that the Toast Food team keeps up to date with the latest innovations and trends, so we’re then best placed to solve packaging problems on behalf of our clients and meet developing requirements.

The one thing that really stood out for us at this show was the number of businesses that are focussing on sustainability, recyclability, eco-friendly, biodegradable etc. It was a noticeable change to the previous Packaging Innovations show in September 2018 and in a short period of time, there has been a lot of focus made on these areas.

This concentrated focus is reactionary to the marketplace, where much of 2018 was taken up with talking about the plastic pollution situation highlighted in the BBC’s Blue Planet programme, aired in 2017. But taking a step back and looking at all of the information and packaging solutions on show today shows us that it’s not mainly just about innovation that we’re looking at here, certainly not all of the time, it could be viewed as being too reactionary and I feel this can lead to more confusion in the marketplace, particularly for the consumer.

Mixed Messaging

For example, there were lots of packaging products labelled as “Recyclable” – “Biodegradable” and “Compostable” but which is it? – To the consumer, this is confusing and misleading, and there’s already too much contradictory information when it comes to disposing of the packaging that we buy, we as consumers need clarity this will ensure that any innovation has a positive impact and does some good

The three above statements are all very different; for example, “Recyclable” means that the materials used can be processed into new products. “Compostable” packaging is developed to break down in a few weeks of being disposed of, but it very much depends on where it’s placed, and “Biodegradable” packaging can break down naturally, but it can take a long time to do so, so it too depends on where it ends up. This one is quite misleading, and it’s not certified or regulated.

When all three or even two of these statements are used on a pack, as we saw today, I feel that we’re trying to do too much, trying to please too many people. The confusion caused may still mean that we’re not in a better place because of it, packaging may be disposed of incorrectly and therefore not solving any problem.

Instead, I believe that we need to educate as to what material is used and what can be done with that particular packaging at the end of its use, can it go into your usual recycling or can it go in your home compost caddy? – Just stating “Compostable” for example doesn’t help as it may need to go to an industrial compost facility and how does a consumer do that? – Throwing a compostable coffee cup in your ‘normal’ bin doesn’t really solve a problem.

So alongside the potentially great innovations that we’re seeing we also need to be educating brands and designers about the benefits of using these particular materials and then, in turn, ensuring that the correct messaging is used on the pack to help consumers make the correct decisions about purchasing and disposing of any packaging that they buy. Just by merely saying “compostable” may feel that you’re doing the right thing in buying it, but does it solve any problems?

Plastic isn’t really the main problem.

A lot of the innovation in packaging materials is because plastic has been demonised in the last 12 months or so, but plastic does still have its uses. It’s light so reduces carbon emissions, it’s very flexible and easy to use. It can be easily recycled, and it’s food safe. Again, brands and designers need to think about what they are trying to achieve, what solution are they looking for and make informed choices, it’s true that plastic has been overused and this has led packaging companies to look at the options, but again it all comes down to education and messaging.

If plastic is used we need to ensure that its used in the correct way, that it can be easily recycled, could it already be made from recycled plastic and then the on-pack messaging has to be clear as to what the consumer has to do with that packaging at the end of its life, keeping it out of landfill and out of our oceans.

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