Sustainability in Packaging Europe 2023 Review

As we begin a new year, we’re taking a look back at what took place at the 2023 Sustainability in Packaging Europe in Barcelona. Industry leaders from across the packaging supply chain came together to share their knowledge and insights on sustainable packaging and the circular economy with over 600 industry stakeholders. 

Opening up the event on Tuesday 17 October Tom Hallam, Project Director – Packaging Consultancy at Smithers, set the stage with an exclusive look at the current European trends in sustainable packaging and the changes seen in different areas from reuse and design, through to recycled plastics and biopolymers. Tom also discussed solutions supporting the industry in meeting sustainability targets for 2025, 2030 and beyond. He closed out the presentation with a look at what the future of sustainable packaging looks like.

Mars' packaging strategy

Feliks Bezati, Global Circular Packaging Director at Mars, followed Tom with a keynote presentation sharing examples and case studies on reuse, paper wrapping, systems change and improving waste management. Feliks shared Mars’ overall packaging strategy – 1. Remove unnecessary packaging, 2. Redesign for circularity, and 3. Invest to close the loop – as well as some of Mars’ recent circularity launches, including the elimination of 571 tonnes of plastic from dry food bags, the shift to mono-material for M&Ms, paper-based packaging for chocolate bars in Australia, the launch of compostable Skittles and M&M pouches, and wet pouches with advanced recycled content.

PPWR and EU regulations

Next we moved onto a session about the hot topic of PPWR. Dr. Gerald Rebitzer, Sustainability Director at Amcor, took to the stage with Richard Akkermans, European R&D Packaging Sustainability Manager at Mondelez International, and Daniel Winkler, Executive VP Corporate Strategy & Sustainability at Constantia Flexibles to join Feliks for a fireside chat on the subject. Discussions circled around opportunities for companies to rethink, explore new business models and form new partnerships to solve it and achieve the targets set by PPWR. Also discussed was how a systemic and transparent circular system will work, with great insights and contributions from the audience.


Circularity in the retail sector

Handling complexity in the value chain, packaging sustainability data and how the retail value chain will work in the future was covered by Alexander Reitz, Team Lead at PreZero. He presented Schwarz Group’s joint plastic strategy – Reset Plastic and their vision for less plastic, closed loops through avoidance of plastics where possible; designing products with recyclability in mind; collecting, sorting, recycling and closing recycling loops; supporting the removal of plastic waste from the environment; and investing in R&D to come up with innovative solutions and inform about recycling and conservation of resources. He provided examples of what has been achieved so far, as well as encouraged the increase of collaboration and digitalization to handle complexity.

Up next was Gizem Narin, Technical Packaging Engineer at METRO AG. Gizem discussed sustainable packaging as a competitive differentiator, sharing METRO’s way towards more circularity as an international wholesaler. Their way includes the reduction of plastic with FSC Certified paper/paperboard, the phasing out of PVC with alternative solutions, phasing out of EPS cushioning, increasing plastic recyclability by switching from carbon black pigmented colours to other lighter colours, and the use of home compostable packaging. She also shared insights into METRO’s packaging communications, including the launch of sustainable packaging icons in 2021. 

The session also include a panel discussion with key representatives from retailers ALDI, METRO and Schwarz Group. Hannah Drew of Aldi and Jurek Zaroffe of Schwarz Group joined Gizem to discuss the assessment of reuse and refill models, recycling, restriction in packaging formats, the role retail plays in packaging transformation, the role of retail in educating suppliers and consumers, and how they can best collaborate.

Drawing the session to a close, experts from Mondi, Envalora, Jeronimo-Martins, Stena Recycling and Upcycling Group came together to share their experiences, successes and advice on how to create a circular economy for packaging from products designed for circularity to secondary material market at scale at end-of-life.

“A yearly flagship event if you want to learn about the strategies of companies leading innovations in packaging materials and sustainability” 
- Packaging Project Manager, AINIA

Recyclability at scale

In this session Vincent Mooij, Director of CIRCPACK at Veolia, opened the floor with an overview presentation on recyclability at scale. Vincent discussed the requirements for recyclability at scale; namely collection, sorting, reprocessing and application, and looked at the maturity of recycling infrastructure in Europe across various packaging materials as well as deposit return systems. Vincent highlighted how fee modulation is still developing across Europe, with discussions on design for recycling advancing but still a work in progress.

Experts from Reclay Systems, Mars and Repeats Group then joined the stage to discuss the differences in recycling infrastructure and collections in Europe, including today’s situation, which packaging type sees the biggest gaps (and how we can close them in 2030/2035), and for which packaging we would be able today to provide recycling at scale.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

Mike Jefferson, Director at Verde Research and Consulting discussed eco-modulation, including different approaches to fee modulation, the current state of play, and implications of the PPWR on fee modulation. This was followed by a discussion with Afvalfondsverpakkingen, EXPRA and CONAI on the drivers behind different eco-modulations, harmonization as a goal, what it means for packaging design and material selection, and how the classification of recyclability can be integrated into eco-modulations.

Reusable and refillable business models

Chaired by Sergio Barbarino, Senior Director & R&D Research Fellow at Procter & Gamble, this session looked at how to setup viable reuse systems at scale. Insights from Searious Business, Kooky, pacoon and New ERA included what new reuse targets mean for the industry, harmonised bulk dispensing units and reusable packaging across brands, successes and failures in upscaling reusability and shared cleaning facilities and logistics infrastructure. 

Brand perspectives and strategies

Fabio Peyer, Head of Sustainability – Flexible Packaging at Mondi, began the final session of day one with a presentation on balancing functionality and sustainability in flexible paper-based packaging. He highlighted how end-consumers are demanding more paper, with 74% of end-consumers highly concerned over current carbon emissions, 70% actively taking steps to reduce their use of plastic packaging and 68% demanding only recycled paper should be used for packaging

His presentation also covered how functionalization of paper widens the range of possible applications, and provides an opportunity for differentiation and innovation for retailers and brand owners, whilst also emphasising the importance of responsible, local sourcing. 

This then led into the final panel discussion of the day, with big brands PepsiCo, Bosch Power Tools and IKEA taking the stage to discuss how they are preparing to meet upcoming PPWR targets, their approach to reuse models, collection systems and how they’re achieving circularity, and what the effects are globally of circularity. 

“Excellent conference outlining the challenges and opportunities for sustainability in packaging” 
– Technologist, Enterprise Ireland

Recyclability at design

Day two of the conference split into multiple tracks to give attendees the option of tailoring their conference experience to what best matches their learning objectives. 

The first track covered recyclability at design, with insights into tackling marine pollution from fish boxes in Italy from the WWF, Mapping LCA and the University of Trieste as they presented and discussed the ‘RE-THINKING Fish Box’ project.

An estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year, with fishery related debris the largest single category by volume found in beach litter. Italy produces around 14,000 tonnes of EPS annually for transporting and storing fresh seafood, but recycling levels are low and mismanaged with EPS among the most common type of waste found on the Mediterranean sea surface and Italian coats. The RE-THINKING Fish Box project aimed to prevent and reduce plastic leakage into the environment by identifying and testing an alternative solution to the traditional EPS fish box, with expected outcomes including the creation of a closed loop, awareness raising and active engagement of all relevant stakeholders, and the implementation of a ‘zero waste’ system that can be replicated and expanded. 

As a result of the project, a new packaging prototype for the fishing industry was developed in line with the principles of the circular economy – a wooden box with an r-XPS tray. 


PCR packaging

With insights from Gront Punkt Norge, Mondelez International and Borealis, the PCR session looked at the impact of legislation on PCR plastic packaging and the certification of PCR plastic packaging. The panellists also dove into how the use of PCR packaging supports the rethinking of the way the industry produces and consumers products, and how it has become the overarching structure by which the packaging industry thinkings about sustainability in practice.

Chemical recycling

Opening up the session on this much debated topic David Carroll, Director External Affairs at Plastics Europe, provided a state of the industry. He discussed chemical recycling from the perspectives of plastics producers, the policy outlook across the EU, key enablers needed to unlock the potential of chemical recycling in Europe – such as high-level support, clarity on acceptance of mass balance in EU legislation, and demand drivers.

David also highlighted what to look out for in 2024; finalization of recycled content targets, an incentivising or penalising policy framework for the plastic industry’s transition, and continued and greater collaboration.

Mechanical recycling

With targets for recycling including measurement being increased drastically, state of the art 80/80/80 not being sufficient, and open loop recycling disparaged – is the sector ready for these new challenges? Expra, Werner & Metz, Henkel, Alliance to End Plastic Waste, and Dow discussed what mechanical recycling do to deliver recycling. They looked at whether there are technological solutions or is chemical recycling the only solution in case of plastics, which recycling capacity is missing in Europe, and why investors seem to be ready to invest billions in chemical recycling and not in mechanical recycling. 

“I felt the topics raised and discussions had between high level stakeholders across the packaging industry were quite insightful. Some questions answered, some new ones raised!  The conference was well designed and scheduled and I can see myself returning next year.”
– Packaging Technologist, Primark

Other topics at the conference surrounded bioplastics and compostability, circularity and design for recycling, labels, collaboration with start-ups and investors, how to achieve circularity with alternative materials, and AI and recycling technologies.

To get the full round-up, purchase the event proceedings for just €599 + VAT. Tickets are also now available for the 2024 event, taking place on 8-10 October in Barcelona, for just €1,099 + VAT for a limited time only.