Solutions for sustainable drink packaging
Sustainability has become an important ingredient for food and drinks brands seeking to connect with consumers.
A mix of environmental, social and legislative factors make sustainable approaches important for both produce and its packaging.
Environmental concerns are felt by people on all levels – both through growing awareness of the global climate crisis and likelihood of seeing litter locally. As such, expectations around product packaging have changed.
Societal factors also play a part, with consumers keen to demonstrate their environmental values to others through the goods they buy. However, the growing cost-of-living crisis is impacting many shoppers’ ability to be choosy with certain produce, as prices rise.
With the introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax in 2022 and the Deposit Return Scheme expected to be introduced in 2025, legislative requirements are also influencing packaging considerations and consumer behaviours.
What are the most important factors for sustainable drink packaging for consumers?
Consumers are increasingly conscious of environmental concerns. They put their money where their mouth is on these issues too, as many adults say sustainable or ethical attributes make products more appealing and worthy of a higher price tag.
Consumers consider a range of factors when assessing how environmentally-friendly drinks packaging is. This typically covers immediate benefits, around whether containers are resealable or reusable, and longer-term sustainability benefits, around the recycled content or recyclability of packaging materials. Local recyclability is seen as one of the top three factors for drinks packaging to be considered sustainable by 45% of adults, with 20% according it primary importance*. Reusability is becoming more meaningful too, as it is now mandatory for lids of drinks bottles (up to 3l) to be attached to the bottle, under the Single Use Plastic Directive.
*Mintel, Attitudes to Drinks Packaging, UK 2023
What impact has the plastic packaging tax had so far?
The plastic packaging tax was introduced across the UK in 2022 in a bid to reduce plastic waste. It is levied against any producer whose packaging does not contain at least 30% recycled content.
The intention is to stimulate an increase in plastics recycling by generating greater demand for recycled content.
It should build on improvements already made, as the proportion of recycled content in plastic packaging increased from 8.5% to 22% between 2018-21*, and 50% of plastic packaging was recycled in 2021*.
However, recycling supply has struggled to keep pace with demand so far.
*WRAP UK Plastics Pact Annual Report 2021/22
What will be the impact of the deposit return scheme in the UK?
A deposit return scheme could prevent up to 85% of drinks containers ending up as litter. Currently, around 4 billion plastic bottles are not recycled each year.
However, a UK-wide approach has been delayed. While Scotland will introduce the scheme this summer, implementation across England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been delayed until late 2025.
The scheme is intended to encourage behaviour change and increase the recycling of PET bottles and cans, as consumers get a deposit of around 20p back when they return empty containers for recycling. Similar approaches around the world have achieved collection targets of 90% or more.
While consumers broadly support a deposit return scheme, a quarter of shoppers* say they would cut down on packaged drinks upon introduction. So the drinks industry will need to highlight the ease and benefits of the scheme to maintain sales.
*Mintel, Attitude to Drinks Packaging UK 2023
How can drinks brands and manufacturers make packaging more sustainable?
Drinks brands and manufacturers can make more sustainable and environmentally-friendly drink packaging through replacing or upgrading the materials used. This is predominantly done by including more recycled or recyclable content or materials that require less energy to be produced or recycled. Using lighter materials also offers environmental benefits, and the most innovative producers are creating biodegradable packaging products.
Penrhos Spirits is introducing bespoke bottles made from 100% recycled and recyclable aluminium while Yazoo and Gordon’s have each switched to cardboard containers.
Changes can also be through reducing reliance on certain materials. For example, Carslberg has cut out single-use plastic rings to hold multi-pack cans, using glue instead, to prevent up to 1,200 tonnes of plastic waste each year*.
Brands are also innovating with biodegradable and dissolvable plastic bottles too. Bacardi launched a 100% biodegradable spirit bottle in 2020, and Tomorrow Machine’s bio-based bottle, made from potatoes, can be eaten, home-composted or dissolved in water.
Some brands are broadening their scope of sustainability too. Italian juice brand Santal promotes its packaging as being made from renewable plant sources while both Moet Hennessey and Capri Sun highlight how lighter packaging limits emissions during transportation.
*The Cocktail Service, 2021
What sustainable drink packaging initiatives have been introduced across the UK drinks industry?
A range of sustainable drink packaging initiatives have already been introduced or trialed in the UK.
Reusable drinks containers are now the norm, with coffee chains capitalising on the promotional opportunities this offers by branding free or low-cost reusable cups for consumers.
Similarly, on-trade outlets can be more environmentally friendly by moving away from individually packaged drinks. Post-mix syrups could be dispensed into reusable, refillable containers. Requiring fewer deliveries, reduced plastic packaging usage and reduced energy consumption for storage in fridges, post-mix can offer a more sustainable alternative to single-use solutions.
Some supermarkets and specialist brands have trialed refill schemes too, including craft spirits brands offering refill pouches that can be returned and recycled. And Asda extended in-store refills for craft beers, ciders and RTD cocktails through 2022. However, similar refill schemes have been withdrawn by Waitrose and Tesco.
What sustainable drink packaging opportunities are there?
Drinks brands and manufacturers can seize on the opportunities sustainability offers both by introducing more sustainable beverage packaging and educating their consumers around environmental considerations.
Changes to materials will create more environmentally-friendly drink packaging, primarily – such as the aluminium, cardboard or different types of plastic options implemented by many big brands.
Offering in-store or at-home refill options will also allow brands to align with both their customers’ values and new lifestyles or habits too.
Educating consumers about sustainable approaches should be as much of a priority as implementing the packaging solutions themselves, research suggests.
Findings from Mintel show that while packaging containing recycled content is an indicator of sustainability for shoppers, only limited numbers of brands use on-pack promotion referencing recycled content*. Making this clearer to consumers will generate goodwill and drive sales.
However, while some recycled materials lend themselves better to this, such as recycled glass typically having a different tint to virgin glass, indicating its sustainability, consideration needs to be given that concerns around microplastics make recycled plastics off-putting for some.
*Mintel, Attitude to Drinks Packaging UK 2022
How else can drinks brands and manufacturers’ make their offerings more sustainable?
Eco-friendly drink packaging isn’t the only solution for improving sustainability.
Using sustainably-sourced ingredients or supporting environmental causes also allows drink brands to demonstrate their values and connect with eco-conscious consumers.
For some, sustainability has been embedded in production processes and approaches. DASH Water and Flawsome use ‘wonky’ fruit in their drinks, while UK brewer Toast Ale makes its beer using surplus bread from the food industry. And BrewDog has developed a state-of-the-art brewery, complete with renewable energy technologies, and invested tree-planting schemes to become carbon negative in its operations.
Elsewhere, sustainability goes above and beyond brands’ own operations. Premium brand Beam Suntory has committed $4bn to a project restoring vital peatland across Ayrshire and close to its distillery in Aberdeenshire. And beverage company Molson Coors donates 1% from its sales to improving access to clean drinking water.
Exploring new packaging solutions and sustainable approaches could be as important as flavour and recipe innovations for drinks brands and manufacturers. Sustainable drink packaging can create reputational, social and financial benefits in the face of growing consumer demand and changing legislation. And it will offer long-term environmental benefits for all.
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