Why zero plastic packaging is an unreachable goal

Chris Saunders, Managing Director, Roberts Metal Packaging

 

‘Plastic-free’ sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?

But don’t get too excited – the fact is that there is no closure that doesn’t have some plastic in the liner. Many brands, designers and consumers are finding this difficult to accept, and we need to encourage clients to understand that reducing plastic is a momentous first step. For many of them, the only realistic one.

Plastic is an essential component in high quality closures on metal packaging because – put simply – as part of a liner it serves as a product barrier. A liner is important because it helps create an airtight seal, therefore avoiding product contamination and preventing both leaks and evaporation.

We could offer plastic free packs without a liner – but with a high risk of evaporation and/or leakage – it probably wouldn’t be a popular choice!

Have you ever used the paper straws sometimes served with milkshake cups? They go soggy halfway through your drink. The same thing applies here – if you wanted to use paper liners in metal pack closures, the product would be absorbed into the porous paper, and consumers would be left with a mess.

Some liners are also designed to cushion, and to create compression when the lid is screwed down – but paper liners would be crushed out of shape within a couple of uses. Be aware that any closures advertised as having paper liners would still include a coating of plastic – it’s just greenwashing if they don’t mention it.

Interestingly, the issue that many clients seem keen to discuss is how to recycle the plastic liners in metal packaging – but the answer is always a lot simpler than they expect. You don’t.

The liner is very small, and if you correctly recycle the metal packaging (which is very important) the liner will be burnt off during the metal recycling process. This way, no additional plastic is added to landfill or oceans, which is one of the main concerns.

Many clients and consumers see zero-plastic packaging as the ultimate end-goal for the environment and circular economy. But plastic recycling doesn’t work in the same way as metal recycling. Metal has a fixed and well-established route back to reprocessing; with plastic, the route is not as well defined and consumer confusion is common. This is likely down to an uncoordinated approach from local authorities and confusing on-pack messaging.

Whilst our liner material (EPE) is recyclable, there is no infrastructure to support the process – and it seems very unlikely that most consumers would remove the liner for a separate waste stream if there was. Rubber and silicone alternatives are prohibitively expensive, make the products smell and would likely run into the same problems with consumers not separating liners for recycling. Waxed paper has also been trialled but less effective in providing a good seal. And even cork is impregnated with neoprene so that has plastic in it too.

For us, the right thing to do moving forwards is to help people understand and appreciate why reduced plastic is a better goal than zero-plastic. Our EPE and other liner materials (if requested by clients) are highly regulated and compliant with EU, REACH and food legislation. They are the best choice for metal closures because they provide the best seal – it’s really that simple. Any further issues clients and consumers have with the use of plastic in closures should be redirected to local councils and recycling centres. Perhaps the next environmental movement should focus on building more available recycling streams for plastics – and how the consumer should behave in sorting recyclable materials for collection.

Our clients can rest assured that we have used the thinnest liners for our closures, using as little plastic as possible to continually maintain the highest standard in finished metal packs.

 

If you would like to discuss Roberts Metal Packaging material choices and sustainability credentials, the team would be delighted to hear from you:  salesteam@roberts-metpack.co.uk

Hair is Everything

Chris Saunders, Managing Director, Roberts Metal Packaging talks us through the 2021 post-pandemic packaging industry trends

 

You might be surprised to read that the biggest thing that’s affected Roberts Metal Packaging since the onset of the pandemic is the fact that nobody has been going out in the evening. There haven’t been any club nights, date nights, weddings, birthday parties, awards ceremonies, or dinner parties.

And why has that impacted us in a big way?

Hair.

As Phoebe Waller Bridge observed in her hit sitcom Fleabag, “hair is everything” – and a big area of our business is haircare products.

As we move into the autumn of 2021, we’re only just getting back to some sort of normality – and consequently, we’re still not seeing any real return to pre-pandemic consumer levels for haircare products. We feel that we’re still likely to feel some impact from delayed orders in the future because the drop in sales hasn’t happened suddenly – there were quite a lot of products in the supply chain before lockdown, so there will be a break before pre-pandemic levels of demand return.

Happily, we’ve had this impact completely offset (and more) by an increase in the number of closures that are being purchased, and we believe that’s being driven primarily by a switch away from plastic.

Has the lockdown given people more time to think about the environmental impact of packaging materials? Has the recent climate change news prompted suppliers to look more closely at their environmental credentials? It’s hard to say exactly, but these are the two major trends we’ve seen across 2021.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, packaging trends leaned towards options that were suitable for postage. As more people shopped online, and many were isolating at home, it became important to use packaging that could fit through a letterbox – be that a shallow cosmetic tin, or a tin robust enough to send baked goods as gifts via the postman.

The shift in demand for haircare products and the change in preferred closure material came as more of a surprise than the demand for mailing packs. People have certainly been talking about the plastic crisis for the last few years, but we hadn’t really seen any significant change in buying habits. Now we’ve seen a noticeable change, but that’s good for metal and good for the environment too, which is wonderful to see in action.

Brexit is another kettle of fish as far as trends go. It has certainly caused a lot of movement in habits; for example, many European customers stocked up prior to Brexit and when it finally happened in January, we saw a leaner period with European business across the first few months of the year.

Reassuringly though, I don’t think we’ve lost any European customers because of Brexit. In part this might be due to a shortage of raw materials; there aren’t enough to go round, the prices of raw materials are going through the roof, and it’s a bit panicky out there because people don’t want to run out of product. Whilst we’ve had a very stable situation with raw materials over the past five years or so, now raw materials prices are increasing almost daily. Has this kicked Brexit into the long grass to an extent? Perhaps, and if you’re a UK-based company, that’s a good thing.

Here at Roberts, we had Brexit stocks which we built up for the ‘first’ Brexit, and then kept for the second and third and final, so we’ve been okay. But if a company is running lean manufacturing principles where they’re working on ‘just in time’ for materials, they will be in trouble now. If you place an order for aluminium today, delivery may not be until sometime in 2022, and some aluminium suppliers are only prepared to allocate certain tonnages to each client.

Roberts has maintained sufficient stock to cover us through Brexit, but I think marketwise it is becoming more challenging. It’s a real shame because we seem to be in this situation where finally something’s happening in terms of people wanting to move from plastic to metal, but raw material availability for both tinplate and aluminium lags.

Despite shortages, it is encouraging to see that clients are dipping a toe in the water with metal packaging. We’ve seen some big brands put some lower volume items into aluminium, which is great, but the transition to metal packaging will be a gradual shift.

Those that are trying to change are very keen to present metal’s sustainability credentials to their own customers, and this seems to be driving a lot of the change. However, there does need to be some further education around the practicalities of metal packaging – in my opinion, we should first aim to reduce rather than dismiss plastic entirely, because plastic free for a lot of clients is just not possible.

‘Plastic-free’ sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? But the problem is that there is no closure on Earth that doesn’t have some plastic in the liner, and some clients are finding this difficult to accept. We need to encourage companies to understand that reducing plastic is a momentous first step and for many of them, the only realistic one. We’re very open to discussions with existing and potential clients on our range of metal products, so I’d encourage anyone considering their packaging needs to get in touch with the team – we’d be delighted to help.

Roberts Metal Packaging sales team: salesteam@roberts-metpack.co.uk

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