Small businesses can make a big impact

Chris Saunders, Managing Director, tells how even small businesses can create a big impact with sustainable packaging choices


I’ve seen a lot of new start-ups and businesses on Instagram and other social media channels recently, and often look at their product packaging and think, ‘it’s all just a lot of plastic again’. Packaging is frequently missed as part of the promotion or marketing plan for SMEs.

Small or medium size businesses could make a bigger impact not only environmentally but also in their marketing if they were using sustainable metal packaging as part of their range. There’s no rule that says you must only use metal or plastic or glass – there is huge value in simply changing one product pack or one lid to metal, for example.

The small changes really add up in terms of environmental impact. As a result, small brands can then promote the packs as much as the product.

In the context of cosmetics especially, which is a major sector for us, one of the biggest impacts that a small company could make by changing to metal would be on the recycling rates of beauty packaging compared to a plastic hair wax tub or a plastic lip gloss container for example.

In my opinion, the younger generation are the most committed to sustainability, and the most likely to pay attention to the recycling credentials of product packaging. Brands who focus on this point will boost their eco credentials and win a major marketing point with young consumers.

Ultimately, our key message is that metal recycles forever and for the younger generation, ‘forever’ is perhaps more meaningful. It’s their future we’re protecting by recycling packaging today. For older generations, issues around sustainability and recycling aren’t ingrained into everyday life in the way it hopefully will be for the next generation of industry leaders, policy makers and consumers.

There are many challenges for small companies now. Supermarkets are reducing stock keeping units (SKUs) like there’s no tomorrow. Compared to how many different SKUs supermarkets and department stores were selling 2-3 years ago, it’s massively reduced. So, who’s going to take a product from a new start-up? Probably not the supermarket chains.

One thing we can do to make metal packaging a more affordable option for small businesses looking to make a big eco impact is to steer them towards keeping packs as standard as possible. If, as a small business, they only want small quantities to begin with, it’s likely to be the more cost-effective solution for them, as we will have units in stock and don’t require the purchase or creation of bespoke tooling.

For example, a standard 15ml aluminium jar (popular for lip balms) that we make and sell to UK and European stockists would be available to order in a relatively small number, and customisation options are available via labelling. This is an inexpensive way to trial metal packaging without overcommitting on the budget sheet.

It’s worth noting also that small companies don’t have to feel pressured to choose between metal and plastic packaging. Quite a few companies decide to have an aluminium product (such as a hair or beard wax tin) within a larger range that includes other packaging formats such as glass and plastic (a hand pump bottle for soap or lotion for example). Often, they’ll request items that need to aesthetically match and look pleasing alongside other items in their range, but they won’t necessarily all be formed of the same material.

Coca-Cola is a classic example of mixed packaging, albeit on a larger scale. Their product is still sold in traditional glass bottles with crown corks, but they also sell in aluminium beverage cans which they have done for years, they sell in glass, and they sell in PET plastic – so it’s not always just about all metal, sometimes it’s about choices within a range.

Often when we think of behaviour change around packaging, we’re thinking of global brands and sales in huge numbers. But it’s just as important to consider that a big impact can be driven by smaller businesses making sustainable choices – metal can help achieve this, one lid, jar or tin at a time.

Packaging events return post-pandemic

Chris Saunders, Managing Director, runs through the return of industry live events in 2022


We’ve missed live events since the onset of the global pandemic, but this year were delighted to attend two of our regular exhibitions, run by Easyfairs: Packaging of Perfume Cosmetics & Design (PCD), part of Paris Packaging Week, and Packaging Innovations at Birmingham NEC.

The two shows are always very different; the Paris show is always buzzing and as you might expect, more international and dynamic with particular focus on cosmetic products. Although we have been supplying directly into Europe for many years, we always meet new people in Paris, which is a huge draw – and we expect to generate more enquiries for samples and quotes from specific companies that come over to see us. So, our follow-up was much more involved from Paris than it was for Birmingham.

The show at the Birmingham NEC is where we meet industry contacts and clients that we know and work with, and because we don’t go and see people much these days, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to chat about things face to face. Here, we focus a bit more on networking and seeing what other companies are offering.


Packaging trends

In terms of packaging trends, all the events over the last few years seem to come back to a conversation around being plastic-free – yet the shows are still dominated by plastic. I find that quite interesting. Plastic is so important (and I’m saying that as a metal packaging supplier). In fact, plastic is so important that although there are a lot of people who make all the ‘right’ noises about being plastic free, no-one has really come up with very many alternatives to plastic.

I had observed in recent years that there were quite a few brands on the brink of switching over to metal, in particular tinplate, from plastic. Sadly, they’ve just started to have doubts because tinplate has more than doubled in price in the past 18 months. Whilst the plastic tax is coming in (and I know plastic costs have gone up as well because of energy costs) the increase is not as much as the jump in price for tinplate.

I think that quite a lot of brands have changed their mind or put their plans on hold for the time being simply because of the quite ridiculous cost difference. And the plastic tax is not going to make enough of a difference to tip people over the edge to metal. In my opinion, Covid and the current global events of 2022 have pushed, certainly Europe, back years in terms of greener, more sustainable packaging.

For a lot of potential customers – business owners and brands – there still needs to be an initial outreach and education to help them learn about metal, compared to plastic. There’s still an audience in the packaging industry that needs to go right back to the beginning and learn about the benefits of metal packaging, be those environmental, practical or design benefits. Often big brands try to compare metal to plastic in the questions that they ask, and because plastic has been in use for so long, people are just brainwashed to think about very specific uses for plastic. There are still some big challenges that we face in convincing people that you need to think about metal in a different way.


Future events

In terms of next year’s events, I would like to see a particular focus on the issues surrounding greenwashing in packaging. Greenwashing must have its profile raised. For example, the pitfalls of brands offering 100% PCR on aluminium products should be discussed. Nobody seems completely clear on the absolute rules and long-term results and more conversation is needed.

Why are we allowing some companies to corner areas of PCR and say that their product is 100% or 98% PCR when there is a finite amount of PCR available? If they have it all, it means is that another company that trades down the road has less, or even none. There’s no environmental benefit in doing this because aluminium already has the highest recycling rate of any packaging material. So, the recycling rate is the important thing, not how much PCR there is available in a particular batch of aluminium. It’s very difficult for businesses like us because we’re frequently asked by big companies about this subject and if we say PCR is not relevant for metal, they don’t believe it and they want to go somewhere else. I’d like to see the whole profile of this issue raised by speakers at events so that it’s an open conversation.

We’re very much looking forward to attending Luxe Pack in Monaco in October 2022, so please do come along and say hello to us there!

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:

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?


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:

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