The meeting of the packaging industry in Barcelona, Spain, marks an interesting highlight among the industry’s trade fairs. Sustainability in Packaging Europe 2019 offered top-class speakers who gave us insight into their companies’ efforts to achieve greater sustainability.
Barcelona is always worth a trip. Combining a visit to Sustainability in Packaging Europe with a sightseeing tour of the city is imperative. The hotel for the event - although an interesting building from the last third of the past century - on the other hand - is something one would probably not put on the tourist plan.
All the more convincing was the event, which also featured an exhibition hall. Exhibitors included representatives from many sectors of the packaging industry: steel, paper and cardboard, printing, plastics, and also the recycling industry, consultants and many more. The small exhibition areas served more as a meeting point than as an actual representation of the companies, and so there was a lively exchange around the central part of the exhibition area, where excellent catering with Spanish dishes was served.
However, the most important part of the event was the lectures and panel discussions that took place in a separate area. Big players from the food industry and small start-ups with sustainable packaging innovations presented their contribution to the circular economy. Paboco®, for example, presented their research push for a paper bottle that is actually alcohol-resistant. TetraPack® presented their roadmap for the coming years to meet the growing consumer focus on environmental issues.
It is consumers in particular who are pushing the big companies to move faster in the area of sustainability. A brand no longer sells itself solely through emotions. Comparable products are increasingly evaluated according to their environmental added value, which can have a strong influence on a purchasing decision. This attitude of customers was also consistently not seen as a trend by the participants of Sustainability in Europe, but rather a deep-seated attitude that will intensify in the coming years.
One of the problems discussed in the food sector is the shelf life of the goods. Greater environmental protection and sustainability would be quite feasible if the storage period could be shortened. With this argument, the discussion participants are addressing the retail trade, which must be brought into the sustainability boat just as much as the consumer himself.
The consumer can of course, as is currently the case, ask companies to work more and faster on these issues. But here, too, a consensus could be heard among the companies that regards the customer as having a share of the responsibility. There must be a re-education of consumers to ensure that the circular economy does not remain a theoretical approach. In the end, consumers must throw the bottle into the glass container or dispose of plastics separately from paper.
What is already common practice in many countries is not yet taking place in many other regions. The reasons for this are varied: poorer regions have more important issues to deal with, areas with weak infrastructure have difficulties in implementing recycling chains across the board, etc.
Recycling does not necessarily have to lead to the renewal of the material. A paper may well become a gas which, as an energy source, contributes again to the production of new materials. At present, only virgin material can be used for food packaging anyway.
This topic generates many cooperations. Especially large and international companies are constantly confronted with national regulations that have to be observed. At least throughout Europe, the participants are pleading for universal guidelines, ideally, however, standards that could be valid worldwide. This would not only simplify and speed up many processes, it would also initiate the entire recyclability and circular economy on a global basis.
According to the basic consensus of the event, there is not a one and only solution. Rather, it is all efforts taken together, on the one hand in the production of packaging, but above all after the life cycle of the packaged product, that will contribute to the circular economy and decisively reduce the CO2 footprint. The conference topics demonstrated the current state of development across a wide range of materials, such as metal containers, mono-materials made of plastic such as PP and PE, paper manufacturers dealing with long-fiber materials. But multi-layer composites are also being improved further. Laminations can be replaced by separate materials or loose compounds. But chemical recycling also offers the chance to advance environmental protection, as paradoxical as this may sound to the layman.
Concerns that standardized processes and materials would lead to uniform packaging were countered by the argument that cans would initially all look the same. Only the labeling and perhaps even a coloring of the base material lead to independent brand appearances. The same applies to bottles - not every filler can afford its own bottle designs - and flexible pouches, which are also the same in their basic form.
Between the official lectures, in more confidential discussions, one naturally also hears the undirected accusation that sustainability has become a buzzword and that the public is certainly being driven, without realizing how much is already being done. Some companies feel overwhelmed by the demands of consumers, which require time and, of course, a good deal of investment to satisfy, in development and research, for example.
Even though we still have a long way to go, one leaves Sustainability in Packaging Europe with the good feeling that everyone has indeed understood the issue and is working - together - to implement more sustainability.
Sustainability in Packaging Europe, Barcelona, Spain
with over 500 attendees, mostly from European countries.
The next event in November 2020 is expected to draw larger numbers of attendees and exhibitors. Check our website’s events calendar to see if the 2020 event will take place as scheduled.