Battling the rising tide of single-use packaging

Tony Hitchin, General Manager at Pro Carton 

Consumer demand for sustainable, environmentally-friendly packaging is burgeoning, with the brands and retailers that adopt sustainable practices more likely to win customers and their loyalty.

These are the findings of Pro Carton’s Europe-wide, independent research with 7,000 consumers in seven countries, which delves into consumer perceptions to packaging in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and Poland. It reveals that the intense media focus, fueled by increasingly urgent calls from environmental campaigners for the world to address the literal rising tide of unwanted waste, is making major inroads into consumer thinking.

In fact, the study found that 66 per cent of UK shoppers say being environmentally-friendly is now more or very much more important to them, with a similar number (68 per cent) saying that the environmental impact of a product’s packaging now affects their purchasing behaviour.

Here, the arguments for cartonboard/cardboard are certainly compelling. It is the most sustainable packaging alternative, plus of course it comes from trees grown in sustainably managed forests. Cartonboard is not only renewable but also fully recyclable and biodegradable, making it the perfect example of a circular economy. We’ve already seen the market for carton packaging grow by 2.5 per cent per annum in recent years and we expect that figure to accelerate as negative media coverage intensifies over more harmful packaging types.

These changes point to the fact that it’s time to seize the opportunities that embracing sustainable packaging options afford, and our study underlines the fact that retailers and brands cannot afford to ignore the strength of consumer sentiment: 64 per cent of Brits already admit to switching brand or product because of packaging concerns and the sample showed a distinct preference for cartonboard over other less sustainable materials.

However, consumers are not convinced that brands and retailers are doing enough: 72 per cent of UK shoppers believe brands and retailers are not making sufficient effort to introduce more environmentally-friendly packaging. What’s more, nine out of 10 UK consumers (89 per cent) say they would choose to shop in an outlet that proactively encouraged suppliers to adopt more sustainable forms of packaging.

But the onus isn’t only on brands and retailers to change. Consumers also expect governments to play their part in effecting change. The study reveals that more than half of UK consumers believe the government should impose a tax or levy on brands and retailers to force them to adopt “greener” packaging, while 69 per cent agree, or strongly agree that the government should provide more information on environment-friendly packaging. Across all European countries, 90 per cent of consumers want labelling to show the environmental credentials of the packaging.

These results speak for themselves and highlight that the brands and retailers that embrace the necessary changes first, are likely to be the ones that continue to attract and retain customer loyalty. Unsustainable, single-use packaging is already a major turnoff for the majority of shoppers, so brands and retailers that don’t act quickly will increasingly find shoppers voting with their wallets to take their business elsewhere.

This is one of the reasons Pro Carton is calling for the expansion of the “Three Rs of Recycling” – currently reduce, reuse and recycle – into the “Five Rs of Responsibility”, with the additions of renew and replace. This would mean choosing packaging materials that are truly renewable and encouraging brand owners and retailers to act responsibly and choose sustainable materials to replace ones that are less environmentally-friendly.

In addition, it’s not solely about the materials, but also the production process and its impact on the wider environment that the cartonboard manufacturers are already addressing. More than 90 per cent of European mills have combined heat and power plants that provide their own energy, and over the past two decades the scale of carbon emissions at these mills has reduced by around 40 per cent. What’s more, the industry is the largest producer and user of biomass energy and, importantly, more new trees are planted than are used – ensuring the expansion of European forests. In fact, in recent years European forests have been growing by the equivalent of 1,500 football pitches a day!

We believe there are plenty of opportunities for brands to challenge the status quo, replace non-sustainable packaging with paper-based materials such as cartonboard and in doing so make the changes necessary to future-proof their products to the benefit of the environment – and their profits.

To read our full European Consumer Packaging Perceptions study or for more information on Pro Carton and the sustainability benefits of carton and cartonboard, visit 

UK readers can also contact BPIF Cartons, the trade association for the UK carton industry

by Tony Hitchin, General Manager at Pro Carton

Pro Carton is the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard manufacturers. Its main purpose is to promote the use of cartons and cartonboard as an economically and ecologically balanced packaging medium.


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