The current debate about sustainability regularly leads to lively discussions in the global packaging sector. Dr Johannes Bergmair, General Secretary of the World Packaging Organization and head of consulting firm Pack Experts in Vienna, explains the upheavals currently affecting the sector.
Dr Bergmair, besides being General Secretary of the World Packaging Organization (WPO), you struck out on your own in 2017 with Pack Experts and now offer consulting services on packaging matters in particular. Given the growing number of problem areas the industry faces, is this the start of a new market?
Well, the beverage market is still the same, but it has set out in a new direction. Although ecology has been around as a subject since the 1960s – in response to population growth, threats to nature and burdens on the environment – we have seen an increase in pressure to make packaging more environmentally friendly in the past two or three years. I think this is mainly due to the powerful effect of images in the media showing packaging waste in the oceans, which have triggered public discussion.
As an international expert on many aspects of packaging, you have an almost unparalleled overview of the situation. What developments do you perceive right now, in the global beverage industry in particular?
There are strong calls to make packaging more environmentally friendly. In this situation it makes perfect sense to ask how much packaging we really need, and how materials can be either improved or reduced. A key theme here is recycling, in other words, finding the right way to collect packaging, dispose of it, and re-use it. But in countries like the US or Japan, for example, these ideas are not making much headway, if at all. Japan is a special packaging market, in any case. They have packaging solutions that would not work anywhere else.
Digitalisation, optimisation and sustainability are on everyone’s lips. What will fundamentally change in terms of packaging for beer, wine, etc.?
It is clear that the digital transformation affects our entire lives, and that includes the beverage market. I am sure we will see more changes yet in the areas of sales, marketing and production. From a sustainability angle, there is a huge call for monomaterial solutions for recycling. But we must not underestimate the challenge, especially where the safety of these materials is involved. All recycling processes involve uncertainties, since there is the potential for contamination.
What is your personal view of the pros and cons of cans, glass and plastic containers?
There are justifications for all these materials, and they all have their pros and cons, and that includes the environmental perspective. Plastic, in particular, is under extreme pressure on account of the images that are currently flooding the media. But it also has a lot of positives: it is light, safe, and does not come out so badly in many life-cycle assessments. And unlike various other materials, it needs very little water and energy to make it. Metal cans are currently experiencing a renaissance thanks to the fact they are easy to recycle. They are excellent at protecting their contents. And glass, with its very good barrier performance, is also easily recycled. I believe there is no point at all in completely changing the mix of materials based on the current debate.
A beverage market in Stuttgart recently decided to ban plastic and cans entirely. Is that the right thing to do?
No, it is nothing more than a placatory measure, and while it generates nice headlines, it is not an environmentally meaningful approach from a packaging industry perspective.
For environmental reasons, many businesses are currently replacing disposable packaging with reusable packaging. Is this transformation working in practice, and where do you perceive problems in the circular economy in the future?
Yes, I am also watching these trends. In Austria, the dairy industry in particular is looking at reusable options again. I think it is positive that the industry is making an effort in this area. But it is often overlooked that although reusable packaging is often more environmentally friendly, that is emphatically not the case every time. Disposable solutions in which the packaging material is disposed of properly, together with recycling of the materials or utilising them for heating purposes, would be much more practical. But only as long as we are using them to replace fossil fuels.
There is a lot of talk about sustainability in beverage packaging right now. What is the current situation with sustainable solutions for outer packaging and packaging for transportation?
Outer packaging and packaging for transportation are not currently the focus of public discussion, so the pressure in this area is not so great. But there are solutions that will lead to improvements in the transport sector, in terms of reducing volumes of material and the use of monomaterial solutions. The major players in the industry take this very seriously, but it is not something that can be achieved overnight.
With its “WorldStar Packaging Awards”, the WPO is one of the partners to BrauBeviale. The winners of this competition will be displayed in a special show at the forthcoming exhibition. What can visitors expect, and what trends does this competition reveal?
The results of the award show what is happening at the moment at an international level, and which topics are of current interest in different countries. The global trend toward green solutions is quite evident. The results show, for example, solutions made from up to 80 percent recyclable material, but with improved handling, better drainability, and a better protective function. It is also interesting to observe that recycling systems in Europe are structured quite differently to those in Africa or South-East Asia, for example. At BrauBeviale, we perceive ourselves as a meeting point for discussion about international packaging. We are right there in person, and have experts with us from countries such as Australia, Lebanon and Brazil