Packaging & Converting Intelligence writer Emma-Jane Batey spoke to M&S's head of sustainability on how it is using cardboard to reduce plastic waste

Cardboard packaging

With it being easy to recycle in standard collections, the use of paper and carton packaging is an easy sell (Credit: Pixabay)

There’s no hard sell when it comes to paper and carton. Consumers keen to shop responsibly are already on board, particularly those who are committed to limiting their dependence on plastic. And with paper packaging easily recyclable in standard collections, it’s simpler to keep it in the circular economy. But what are its limits? Packaging and Converting Intelligence writer Emma-Jane Batey asks business giants such as Danone and M&S for their thoughts.

Paper, board and corrugated board are widely used across sectors, from low-cost to luxury, from FMCG to fragrance. Offering excellent protection in transportation, multiple branding opportunities and easy consumer engagement, this responsible substrate family is relatively cheap and highly flexible.

M&S head of sustainability on how it’s using cardboard to reduce plastic waste

For major British retailer Marks & Spencer, its appreciation of paper and board is a key element in its widely praised Plan A initiative that commits to reducing reliance on plastic across its global operations.

Plan A supports M&S’s target of becoming a zero-waste business by 2025, with considerable achievements already such as phasing out 75 million pieces of plastic cutlery, offering a 25p incentive to customers using reusable cups at its cafes, and eliminating more than 1,700 tonnes of harder-to-recycle black plastic packaging.

M&S head of food sustainability Louise Nicholls says: “We’re proud to launch a series of market-leading initiatives to help our customers take home less plastic. We know our customers want to play their part in cutting out plastic, while as a business our goal is to become zero-waste by 2025. That’s why we’re working hard to reduce the amount of plastic we use without compromising on food quality and contributing to waste.”

Currently, M&S offers widely recyclable single-use containers in its Market Place locations, primarily made from Forestry Stewardship Council-approved (FSC) cardboard with a plastic lid. But as the retailer steps up its commitment to cutting single-use packaging, it has trialled lines of completely packaging-free fruit and vegetables at its Tolworth store.

M&S packaging
British retailer Marks & Spencer was founded in Leeds in the 19th century (Credit: Wikimedia/Mtaylor848/,_St._James_retail_park,_Knaresborough_(22nd_June_2016).jpg)

The successful trial introduced trained greengrocers to help customers select their produce and includes compostable punnets for perishable items such as soft fruits and berries. Nicholls explains: “Our trial at Tolworth is an important milestone in our plastic reduction journey and bringing back the traditional greengrocer will play a key part in educating our customers. Our plan is to create long-term impact in the future using tangible insights from the Tolworth store trial.”

M&S is vocal with its Plan A initiative, stating clearly its goals and timeframe, with much of the aims focused on cutting single-use plastics, reducing packaging overall, and introducing more responsible packaging options where no packaging is not an option.

It’s “Ultimate Goal” is to achieve a circular economy where “we use less plastic and any we do use, gets reused or recycled”, with its three key actions listed as “reducing the plastic we use in our business, working collaboratively to reform the UK’s waste and recycling system, and making it easier for consumers to recycle and reuse plastic”.


Vegware environmental comms boss on shift towards plant-based materials

Going a step further seems to be a popular refrain across brand owners, retailers and manufacturers. Everyone knows what the legal requirements are, but isn’t doing a little (or a lot) more something to celebrate? That’s certainly what disruptive packaging producer Vegware believes.

Vegware develops and manufactures compostable, plant-based packaging for foodservice applications as a high-performance alternative to plastic and with all the consumer appeal of paper and carton. Offering hot and cold drink cups, take-out boxes and food containers made from renewable, lower-carbon or recycled materials, all of which can be easily recycled or composted.

Distributing worldwide with operational bases in the UK, USA, Australia and Hong Kong, Vegware prides itself on being both “a manufacturer and a visionary brand”. Vegware environmental and communications director Lucy Frankel tells Packaging & Converting Intelligence: “Broadly speaking, Vegware’s product range is a combination of plant fibres and compostable polymers. Given the recent awareness in the challenges of conventional plastics, we have seen a huge shift towards plant-based materials.”

M&S packaging
Disruptive packaging producer Vegware’s range is a combination of plant fibres and compostable polymers (Credit: Pixabay)

Frankel continues: “Paper products do a fantastic job of visually communicating that they are different. A good example is our colourful Hula paper cold cups, which are lined with PLA, or our new premium paper straws. Compliance is vital to a trusted brand like Vegware – we sell to 70 countries around the world. We have the deepest set of compostability certification in our sector, and run composting trials to ensure our products work with local waste infrastructures.”

In the true spirit of going one step further, Vegware has also set up its own composting collection service, called Close the Loop, to make it as easy as possible for its customers and their consumers to do the right thing. Frankel adds: “Close the Loop sees us collect clients’ used Vegware and food waste for commercial composting, creating high-grade compost in a matter of weeks. So your catering waste helps to feed future crops!”

Any virgin card or paper used by Vegware comes from a responsible forestry source with a recognised chain of custody, and the brand loves to use recycled card and paper wherever possible to “save virgin materials”. All its products are certified food-safe, certified compostable, and have a traceable supply chain.

Frankel adds: “We are proud of our sustainable supply chain. Our fully traceable products are made in quality controlled conditions from sustainably sourced or recycled materials. Minimising waste and maximising transport efficiency gives benefit all round.”


Danone’s packaging quality manger on how it’s using paper products to shift away from plastic

Perhaps “benefit all-round” could be an effective call to action across the packaging industry? We all know that the positive focus on creating and actioning a circular economy is crucial to achieving the global directives for single-use plastic reduction as well as increasing use of renewable packaging substrates such as paper and carton.

For leading global food and beverage giant Danone, its strategy of focusing on “inspiring healthier and more sustainable eating and drinking practices” comes together under its “One Planet. One Health” vision.

This vision includes a set of defined goals to be achieved by 2030 and includes building on health-focused and fast-growing categories in three business areas — essential dairy and plant-based products, waters, and specialised nutrition.

Based on the belief that the health of the people and the planet is interconnected, “One Planet. One Health” aims to bring to life “super, sustainable, profitable value” for its stakeholders while delivering innovative, sustainably packaged food and beverages for its customers worldwide.

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One of Danone’s best-known brands is the bottled water Evian, sourced from the French commune of Évian-les-Bains (Credit: Pixabay)

Danone’s portfolio includes household names including Volvic, Évian, Activia and Cow & Gate. With more than 100,000 employees worldwide generating EUR24.7 billion in sales in 2018, Danone is achieving its long-term mission of “bringing health food to as many people as possible”.

As global packaging quality assurance manager at Danone, Patrick Pagliarani is dedicated to supporting the global giant’s mission and vision through sourcing innovative packaging solutions.

Pagliarani tells Packaging & Converting Intelligence: “In the journey to get away from plastic packaging, Danone has chosen paper as one of its paths to follow. Various packaging formats fully or partially composed of paper will replace plastic, upgrading Danone products in sustainability and making them more premium.”

Danone is already using an average of 14% rPET in its water and other beverage bottles, with the expectation of this reaching 50% by 2025. Its Évian brand already uses 30% rPET, intending to reach 100% by 2025.


Award-winning packaging firm’s chief on the Blue Planet II effect

The increasing awareness and importance of environmental issues has led to some of the biggest brands switching to alternatives to plastic, and creative packaging supplier BoxMart has rapidly emerged as a leader in providing award-winning cardboard packaging using both cartonboard and corrugated board.

Jo Offord, BoxMart managing director, tells Packaging & Converting Intelligence: “Like most people, I think we’d have to say that the David Attenborough Blue Planet II documentary caused everyone to think about plastics in a different way.

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Carton and cardboard company BoxMart’s managing director said she’s seen a dramatic increase in demand for alternatives to plastic (Credit: Pixabay)

“Thankfully, we’ve always been a forward-thinking business and, being focused on paper-based packaging – both cartonboard and corrugated board, we were already established as a key supplier of environmentally-friendly alternatives.

“This, coupled with our infrastructure and extremely innovative development team, has meant that we’ve been ideally placed to recommend options and solutions to our clients whether in materials, print finishes or constructional design.”

Offord continues: “We have seen a dramatic increase in enquiries and demand for alternatives to plastic. Plastic-free drinks packaging has become a significant growth area for us and it is a trend that is replicated across different sectors such as beauty, gifting and e-commerce.

“Though there has been some controversy around packaging generally in recent years, I think the industry is starting to communicate its value to the public, as well as striving to address their sustainability concerns. Take corrugated packaging, for example, it’s associated with values of strength, versatility, durability and renewability; who wouldn’t want to be associated with that?”

For all stakeholders in the packaging value chain, the common denominator is a willingness to change and an understanding that change is required. While there may be differences in how that change should be implemented – from defining what responsibility lies with whom at each stage of the circular economy’s value chain – we can all agree that standing still is not an option.

By choosing responsible, sustainable packaging that is made from substrates that meet the changing demands of the world’s leading brands as well as the expectations of conscientious consumers, the packaging industry can be truly part of the solution.


This article originally appeared in the autumn 2019 edition of Packaging & Converting Intelligence. The full issue can be viewed here.