Culture clash2 March 2019
Just weeks after the EU approved the Single-Use Plastics ban, leading forestry consultancy Pöyry hosted the world’s first ‘Carbon Clash’, bringing together experts from across the globe to discuss the best solutions to the problems of plastic waste in the packaging industry. Tim Gunn reports on a heated debate and finds out what it might mean for the years ahead.
Jaakko Pöyry founded his eponymous engineering and consultancy company in 1958. It has continued for 12 years since his death. For his legacy as an industrialist to outstrip what he bequeathed the planet as a plastics user, it will have to last a thousand more.
Appropriately then, Pöyry marked its 60th anniversary by looking forward at how to tackle plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Its ‘Carbon Clash’ conference in Helsinki brought together experts from across the world to debate how the packaging and energy industries can develop low-carbon replacements for fossil fuel-based products. CEO Martin à Porta’s “bold guess for the future” didn’t go any further than 2048 (by which time he believes the proportion of land covered by forest will be 8% higher, and Pöyry will have existed for about as long as it should take beer can rings to degrade in the ocean), but, coming just weeks after the European Parliament approved the ban on singleuse plastics, the Carbon Clash was certainly timely.
As the company’s figures neatly illustrate, Pöyry’s years in business coincide with an incredible worldwide boom in plastic use. There are 2.7 times as many of us as there were in 1958 (2.9 billion to 7.8), but we produce a staggering 220 times more plastic (1.5Mt to 330). In Europe, 40% of that material goes to packaging, of which 40% goes to landfill, 14% is incinerated and 14% is recycled. The remaining third leaks into the environment, humbly accruing atop the four billion tonnes already sunk and strewn across it.
That number is not going to shrink. Only the visible remnants of Jaakko Pöyry’s plastic bags and bottles will ever decompose. They will leave behind permanent microplastics with diameters of 5mm or less. As one Pöyry expert put it after the conference, “Cleaning the world of microplastics will not be possible in a million years, but most of them are inert, as far as we know. We haven’t had many studies, but, for the time being, we think they’re inert.” It’s not entirely clear whether or not that was meant to be encouraging.
- Tomi Nyman, Pöyry
Let them fight
A few hours earlier, Pöyry’s Saara Söderberg had introduced the clash on biopackaging, pitting Suvi Haimi, CEO of Finnish start-up Sulapac, and her compatriot Tuomas Mustonen, MD of the slightly older Paptic, against each other on a central stage that, its lectern excepted, looked like a boxing ring. “You are both ahead of the curve in introducing readily available plastic waste solutions to the market,” said Söderberg, whipping the crowd into a fever pitch.
Despite the setting, and the swashbuckling blare of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme as the speakers took the stage, what ensued was 40 minutes of mutual compliments and considered agreement. That’s not too surprising – the two businesses share very similar goals, methods and motivations. Paptic is a portfolio of strong and versatile paper-based plastic replacements with the feel of textiles, and Sulapac – “a piece of Nordic design that combines luxury, ecology and unlimited possibilities” – is made out of wood and natural fibres. Somehow belying its construction, the latter has the pleasant clink of porcelain. Paptic, meanwhile, is the kind of absent-mindedly strokable material that can stop clashes before they start.
For both Mustonen and Haimi, it’s these extrafunctional properties that allow their products to take on plastic. “It’s not just about a material’s price,” explained Mustonen, “it’s also about the value of a material, not only as packaging, but for the brand. It’s also about differentiation: the kind of values that can actually be built into a material to promote its use.”
“Many competitors just bring new raw materials to market in the form of granules, but it’s difficult to distinguish yourself that way,” Haimi says. “We [Haimi and co-founder Laura Kyllönen] wanted to express our identities, so we designed our first jar to look like a round stone on a northern beach.” It worked – Sulapac has won multiple awards, and in December 2018 Chanel became an investor.
Another giant of French fashion, Galeries Lafayette, the largest department store in Paris, provides its customers with Paptic carrier bags. “What we would like to enable with Paptic and its textile-like feel is a way to differentiate products and raise a new marketing angle for brands to build on,” says Mustonen. “That’s how to help the scale-up stage when you’re introducing the first new products on the shelves – if they stand out they sell more, which provides the return on the investment. We’re stepping out of the one-toone replacement model because it’s not sustainable business-wise.”
This approach to subtly reincentivising and reorienting the market was popular at the Carbon Clash. Discussing Poyry’s culture of intrapreneurship, à Porta put it in particularly apt terms for packaging: “To think outside the box, you sometimes need a box.”
Depacking, repacking and unboxing
Helpfully for Sulapac and Paptic, today’s packaging is far from perfect. Halfway through the clash, Söderberg tossed a full shopping basket into the fray, asking Haimi and Mustonen to improve the way its contents were held together. Haimi calmly extracted a box of Play-Doh. “This secondary packaging here is pure waste,” she noted. “To make it sustainable you only need the primary packaging to prevent the product from drying out. It doesn’t have to be plastic: it could be replaced by Sulapac.”
“40% of that product’s overall weight is packaging,” clarified Söderberg, ready for things to escalate as she turned to Mustonen.
Standing strong in the eye of the storm, the Paptic founder raised a pack of dates aloft and said, “These are a good example of poor packaging.” Despite the four different materials used to enclose the selection in Mustonen’s hands, dates don’t require much of an oxygen barrier. “And are consumers going to know which bin to put each element in?” he continued. “That sounds complicated, and the plastic isn’t easy to recycle either.” Instead, he proposed using a paper tray and a clear biodegradable film, or simply a resealable Paptic pouch.
After the event, Söderberg and her colleagues in Pöyry’s global plastic substitution consultancy were keen to talk about what can be learned from closely examining the way our products appear on the shelves. “Why does a package have to be a commercial screaming at you in all these colours?” she asked, in (the blue) light of the adverts on our ubiquitous screens. “As long as products are moving, why should brands or retailers care?”
“Today’s packages are a holdover from another time,” agreed Tomi Nyman, a principal at Pöyry. “What we need now is a way to hold goods together without contributing waste. Holding beer cans together without plastic rings has been a paradigm shift. Can Play-Doh do something like that?”
For Mustonen, the key to that paradigm shift is “using the package as the carrier of the brand message; not the carrier of the product, but part of the product, part of the whole system.” That’s why packaging manufacturers need to think outside the framework of one-to-one replacements. As he explained off-stage, “Brands’ and retailers’ carrier bag purchasing decisions are made by marketing directors. It’s part of the marketing budget. So it’s not just about the bag, it’s what kind of purpose it serves for the whole business.”
The same applies in ecommerce, where Nyman has noticed a troubling trend towards using even more secondary packaging. In the long term, that’s not a healthy development, but it gives innovators the opportunity to mark themselves out as responsible and sustainability-conscious actors in a society raging at the scourge of plastic waste.
Research suggests that over 50% of customers are more likely to return to ecommerce retailers who make something special of the ‘unboxing experience’. Given the popularity unboxing videos online, investment in high-quality sustainable packaging also has the potential to be a powerful marketing tool. Mustonen even believes that worthwhile unboxing experiences – ones that make customers feel simultaneously appreciated and ethical, resulting in videos that ensure viewers can be confident about their purchasing decisions – can reduce product returns by 5%.
Start making sense
That said, if unnecessary packaging is ever going to stop smothering our products and our planet, companies need to rethink what they’re trying to achieve. That’s not easy. Irrespective of individual actors, a vast, distributed and deeply embedded infrastructure exists to serve the plastic god. As Mustonen concedes, “Often converters are maximising the output from their machines, and they don’t want drastic changes in design because it means investing in different ones.”
Paptic and Sulapac can both be produced using existing mills and manufacturing plants, but that doesn’t change the fact that in many cases, packaging innovations are held back by the existing solutions. “Supply chains need to become more lightweight,” says Mustonen. “Someone is going to lose out from that.”
But supply chains were far from the interlocutors’ prime concern. When asked to identify the biggest challenge in combatting plastic waste, Haimi and Mustonen entered into even more vehement agreement than usual: terms like biodegradable, bio-based, and recyclable are ambiguous and confusing. “All of us in this room are professionals who understand what bio-words mean,” said Mustonen, resorting to flattery in an apparent attempt to gain the upper hand, “but it’s not clear for consumers.”
The crux of the issue is that bioplastics are not necessarily biodegradable. They’re defined by their source, while biodegradable plastics are defined by their end result. It’s hard for customers and even legislators to keep track of how the two different rule-sets line up, let alone understand their implications for recycling. On top of that, biodegradable is itself a degraded term. Spurious concepts like oxo-biodegradability (which refers to non-biodegradable plastics that simply decompose into microplastics more quickly), and concerted attempts to greenwash unsustainable practices have done serious damage to the discourse around packaging.
Tuomas Mustonen, Paptic
As such, Haimi threw her polite haymaker and proposed a new way of categorising packaging materials: microplastic-free and microplastic-releasing.
As biochemists, Haimi and Kyllönen knew from the start that microplastics were the enemy. In 2016, when they were seeking advice for how to present their raw material – which biodegrades faster than birch leaves in the ocean (a Sulapac jewellery box takes 21 days; a stray leaf can take two years) – to the cosmetics industry, they were repeatedly told to add a plastic layer. Clearly, that would have undermined Sulapac’s competitive advantage, as well as everything the company stood for, but as recently as two-and-a-half years ago, most people had never heard of microplastics.
“As we had the scientific background we genuinely understood what microplastics were doing to ecosystems and human beings, so it was easy for us to go our own way instead of relying on what solutions the market was favouring at that moment.” Haimi explains. “We’ve designed Sulapac so that it’s better than plastic anywhere it ends up. It’s safe in every ecosystem.”
Not so simple
For all of that, Pöyry’s own plastic substitution experts don’t necessarily subscribe to Haimi’s new categorisation. Although Paptic is microplastic-free, nor does Mustonen. That’s the clash. As many plastic products are actually made from microplastics, this definition also has the potential to confuse customers about source and result.
Nyman believes that a combination of bio-based and biodegradable plastics is the most likely way forward. “Not everything can be fully one or the other,” he explains, “and not everything can be both.”
Haimi’s suggestion is still a worthwhile ideal. Brands like Chanel and Galeries Lafayette are the forerunners helping environmental sustainability line up with business sustainability, but the whole packaging industry can lead the way to something even more important. The disposal of plastics is less of a problem than global warming, but, given the public interest in solving the issues around waste, it’s likely the area in which humanity’s response to it will be pioneered. In Nyman’s words, “It touches you personally when you see what plastic does to wildlife. You don’t see the air.”
To substitute the polyethylene in packaging with solutions like Sulapac and Paptic, around 10 million hectare more forest would need to be grown. By doing so, around 250Mt of CO2 emissions could be avoided every year, and another 820Mt CO2 could be stored in trees. Remember à Porta’s bold prediction for forests? Pöyry’s intrapreneurs are working on efficiently growing them in deserts. It’s a way to replace plastic and offset emissions from energy generation, and a step towards carbon harmony.