Path Opinion: UK Plastics Pact

The recently-launched UK Plastics Pact is a laudable initiative, but is it missing something? According to WRAP it ‘brings together the entire plastics packaging value chain’ yet where are the design agencies who are often the creative minds behind new structural packaging, on-pack communication and branding? Perhaps we need to gatecrash this particular party… There are no formal statistics to evidence how much FMCG packaging is designed by external agencies, but our educated guess is around 50% in terms of structural packaging and 80% in terms of on-pack graphics. FMCG manufacturers and supermarkets regularly use external design agencies to help them redesign their packaging and undertake NPD and innovation projects. These agencies work with in-house teams and packaging suppliers to help launch new products, build brands, and even create new categories. Looking at the various initiatives and organisations involved in trying to solve the plastics problem, designers don’t seem to be on the guest list. Yet this is where their creative skills flourish – turning traditional thinking on its head, finding alternative solutions and exploiting the opportunities afforded by new materials. Words like ‘innovation’ and ‘design’ are being bandied around in the debate by other stakeholders, but design agencies seem noticeable by their absence. And whilst scientists and entrepreneurs might come up with new ideas that change the way we do things, design agencies are adept at keeping an eye on the commercial realities and brand ‘fit’ that can often scupper a new idea.


The need for a different path

The Plastics Pact is clearly a step in the right direction but as a voluntary code with no enforcement, it could be seen by cynics as yet another grand gesture which secures valuable column inches for its signatories – big promises which may well be compromised by commercial realism. Corporations like Coca-Cola were making similar recycling promises ten years ago, and companies like Iceland which has set itself more ambitious targets haven’t (yet) signed up to the Pact. Seven years is a very long time, and targets such as 30% average recycled content in new packaging conversely mean that 70% can still be virgin plastic. We’ve been recycling for years, yet our success rate remains pitifully low; in addition, plastics can only be recycled and reused a limited number of times. Initiatives like the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize are equally laudable but entrepreneurial ideas require time, investment and often a cycle of experimentation before they can have tangible and lasting impact. What about FMCG packaging projects that are in the pipeline today? The design industry has seen cycles of sustainability-driven briefs – often in response to competitor activity or new technologies – but the search for packaging solutions to the problem recently seems focused more on scientists, entrepreneurs and of course the brand-owners themselves. So, we’d like to propose the notion that, using our home-grown UK design talent, there are several ‘smaller’ initiatives that could potentially create a more immediate and lasting impact.



Let design agencies loose on specific, smaller-scale initiatives

On-pack communication is a case in point. We know that consumers struggle with what can and can’t be recycled, and we know that individual councils all operate their recycling systems in different ways (although the goal must be to create a UK-wide system). Design agencies with experience in graphics and packaging are perfectly placed to explore on- and off-pack communication solutions to this problem, and the brand that claims this territory first will win a Gold in both PR and consumer terms. New materials may spearhead breakthroughs in the plastics challenge, but who better to explore the design opportunities of new materials in packaging terms than designers, working in close partnership with packaging suppliers and brand owners? Structural packaging design expertise has at its heart the commercial realities of fast production lines and cost-effective shipping, as well as consumer need and mindset. And whilst this is currently a UK Plastics Pact – soon to be adopted in other countries – let’s not forget the very specific challenges presented by third world countries where a sachet ‘industry’ has grown out of poverty and the need for affordable portion sizes. In terms of single-use plastic this is a key offender. The design industry thrives on understanding the complexity of challenges like this.


Successful solutions require pragmatic creativity

That’s what makes the design industry unique. It’s the injection of creativity, imagination and artistic skill, grounded in commercial realism and put through a brand ‘filter’ that comes together to produce successful results. The harsh truth is that we will need all these elements in equal measures if we’re going to effect immediate, tangible, long-term change.

What’s your role in the plastics challenge? Share your views with and follow Thomas Herman’s Linkedin profile to receive the next in our “Responsible design (because we are responsible)” series.


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