Packaging. It’s not something many of us really give a thought to most of the time. Yes, we complain when something ordered from Amazon or another online retailer arrives with ridiculous amounts of packaging. We recognise the problem plastics cause, but few people are actively changing their buying habits to reduce it. But what do you know about packaging, and how can we improve it?
Ask most people how to improve packaging, and they will say it is not their problem. They will point to the retailer and the packaging industry. So what is happening to improve packaging? What are the demands on the packaging industry to improve things and remove plastics? How much can they do, especially in the food industry, where even the regulator has no alternative plan to the use of plastic.
To get a better understanding of what is happening in the packaging industry, Enterprise Times talked with DS Smith, one of the leading companies in the market. We spoke with Marjolein Lem, Group Innovation Program Director and Magnus Renman, Group R&D Director.
Who is DS Smith?
DS Smith is a UK-based packaging company that has been around for over 80 years. It now employs over 30,000 people worldwide and has had sustainable packaging as part of its core message. Over the last 15 years, it has been very active in M&A but now says its focus is on organic growth.
Part of that organic growth and sustainable agenda is about localisation for products and recycling of products. It is currently investing £100 million to support those plans to engineer new types of packaging. Those new types are replacements for plastic. The company previously divested itself of its plastics division as part of that programme.
But there are other challenges still to be met. Many of those are around how the retail and shipping channels view packaging.
Packing becoming a technology solution
One of the goals for DS Smith, according to Lem, is to move beyond the packaging. But what does that mean? When asked, Lem replied, “Our customers want much more than that box. They want the intelligence that comes with how that box travels through the supply chain. They want to understand where their products go, how they’re being shopped, why they’re being shopped.”
That means moving towards a range of technologies that provide data and intelligence to the customer. In terms of the packaging, that intelligence comes in the form of temperature, location, stress such as boxes being dropped and location data. But it goes beyond that.
Lem went on to say, “We have circular design metrics, for instance, that allow customers to understand the impact of their choices in terms of the supply chain, responsible sourcing, the impact of lorries on the road, those kinds of things.”
Renman continued, “We have had a tracker for the last five years. It is a fully returnable tracker. At some point in the supply chain, it gets activated and uploads data automatically.”
Lem says that DS Smith is “Looking into printable tags. Instead of batteries to power its data gathering and transmitting, it will use some form of biofuel cell.”
Interestingly, Renman does not see that as being 3D printed onto the materials. He thinks that may come in the future, but we are not there yet.
Removing the plastic
The technology is more insidious than trackers and data intelligence for customers. It is about the way packaging is created. The days of basic cardboard or plastic wraps are gone. According to Renman, “We are moving away from laminating heavy plastic onto paper. We are making it much lighter on plastic.”
But taking out the plastic is easier said than done. For example, plastic is also used to protect surfaces to prevent scratching and to preserve high gloss finishes. Renman said, “Customers want us to remove the plastic altogether, and we have fully 100% recyclable fibre-based solutions that are equally good.”
Lem continued, “When replacing plastic with fibre-based alternative, we need barriers, ways to make the fibre work like plastic without being it.”
Turning packaging into a service
DS Smith is looking to evolve that relationship with the customer. For many customers, packaging is about buying boxes or materials to protect what is in the boxes. However, an increasing number of customers want to engage with DS Smith to get more.
One part of that solution, according to Lem, is a new service called Packaging as a Service that the company has launched. It allows DS Smith to advise customers on where they can optimise their supply chains. It also advises them on how to change the type of packaging they are using to be more sustainable.
Customers are also asking for help in designing the right packaging for their goods. This is as much about reducing the packaging as it is supporting the marketing and promotion of a product.
Interestingly, while large companies have had internal design teams working on this problem for decades, smaller businesses are now realising the benefits it brings. Lem says that she has an online offering for that. It allows small businesses to get the benefits of custom packaging to make their products stand out. She gave examples of people selling mugs and other products where they wanted to stand out in a shop.
It also allows them to place small orders in specific colours to suit their business. It is an innovation that is working well for the SME market.
What about recycling?
One of the major challenges for packaging is recycling. In the UK, we still throw too much away. Part of that is consumer behaviour, but a bigger part is the confusing nature of recycling across the UK, which varies by country. As Renman points out, Holland, Sweden, Germany and many other European countries have a very organised, centralised, country-based system.
European countries have better engagements with citizens through green neighbourhood initiatives. It means the recycling rates are over 85%, on average, with an aim to get to 90%+.
For DS Smith, that is good news. It means that they can recycle the fibre in the waste. It claims its products are 100% recyclable, and Renman says that it recycles around 5.5 million tonnes every week.
However, being able to recycle fibre means being able to identify the fibre and easily recover it. One of the global challenges of waste recovery is contamination. Many recycling companies admit that contamination leads to recycled goods going to landfills. Part of that contamination is that the recycling symbol on the packaging doesn’t say the best way to recycle something. It seems more education is needed for consumers, retailers and the industry.
Renman said, “We should keep fibre as long as we can. It can be recycled at least 25 times, perhaps even longer. It’s a perfect material to recycle.” He went on to compare it to plastics, where you have so many different types, and when you do recycle them, you don’t get the same grade back again.
How do we track recycled materials?
Look at other industries, and there has been a concerted move to track from source to consumption. The most high profile has been the food industry with initiatives such as from field to fork.
Lem said that DS Smith is looking into this as part of its own research. There is also growing regulation and regulatory pressure to do more. The solution that Lem highlighted is the use of printed codes or tags on the packaging. Interestingly, if the company succeeds in printable tracking for shipping goods, it doesn’t seem a huge jump to doing the same to the basic materials when it comes to recycling.
Renman said, “At present, we see fibre being recycled seven to ten times. But there is a need to add new fibres into the system.” Part of that is about replacing what it lost, and part is about refreshing the materials.
Modular manufacturing is not a new concept, but could it apply to packaging? Lem thinks so, but it needs both customers and the industry to work together. Look across a large company, and there are many different grades of materials in use. The challenge is how to reduce that to a number that can be manufactured on the client site.
Lem said, “We are working on a technique where we can basically deliver all their requirements with one or two different board rates. But that’s because we build a box from modular components, adding different materials only where we need to.
“But that’s a completely different manufacturing process. It would be modular manufacturing, which can also be done in different locations. You can do the whole process outside of our mainstream manufacturing. That is definitely a future for us where we might potentially have mega factories doing the big volumes and then smaller local hubs where you have some packaging produced locally.”
What makes this interesting is that it plays into the idea of a fully circular economy. While there would be a need for a small amount of raw materials to begin with, recycling and reuse would significantly reduce the need for new materials. It is environmentally positive and energy efficient. While DS Smith isn’t quite there yet, the suggestion of modular manufacturing raises the hope we are getting closer.
Enterprise Times: What does this mean?
Packaging is one of those industries few of us think anything about, yet we are surrounded by good and bad examples every day. The amount of innovation in the market is no different to that which you would expect in any tech sector. 3D printing is not just about printing labels, but printing trackers opens up a number of interesting possibilities.
For DS Smith, however, innovation is just one thing that it is focused on. It wants higher levels of recycling, and its commitment to using fibre is just one part of that. The company is already seeing increased engagement from customers of all sizes around the packaging that they use. It will be interesting to see what comes next in this market.