Video interview: Packaging and the Environment

In the last of a series of interviews, filmed prior to our rebrand to MorsaPack in 2020, Managing Director Robert McEwan talks about one of his biggest passions – limiting packaging’s negative impact on the environment.

He covers how to ensure packaging does not cause harm to the environment, as well as his thoughts on plastics vs paper, and MorsaPack’s commitment to functionality of packaging.

A transcript of this interview is available below:

Lucia France (Interviewer): Hello, I’m Lucia France and I’m here with Robert McEwan, Managing Director of MorsaPack.  Now of course the environment is a massive hot topic at the moment and packaging’s effect on the environment is a big part of that.  So Robert can you tell us what your beliefs are in relation to packaging’s effect on the environment?

Robert McEwan: My belief is that the issue is twofold.  One is not having the right amount of packaging for what the packaging needs to do, and secondly the recyclability of packaging.  

There was a study done in relation to pallets by the European Commission and this is when they found that 4% of products were arriving damaged.  And what they found was that 95% of pallets that were wrapped were wrapped in sufficiently, so they weren’t safe for what the pallet was meant to have been doing going to the customer.  And then 3% of them were over wrapped, so they had too much packaging on, and only 2% were wrapped how they should have been wrapped.  

If you think of all the pallets that are transported on a daily basis it’s frightening when you think that 95% of those pallets are inadequately packed.

Lucia France: Yeah, absolutely.

Robert McEwan: But then you have a percentage of them that are over packed, that’s the challenge that packaging companies have got, it’s to make sure that the products have got the right amount of packaging, and then they have the right packaging, there’s big challenges to whether it should be plastics and whether it should be paper or other methods.

Lucia France : So where does your thoughts lie on that plastics or paper debate?

Robert McEwan: There is a debate that paper has a worsening effect on carbon emissions than plastic does.  But at the same time I’m not denying that there’s products that are being dumped in the sea in countries around the world and we see some horrific photos of things that are happening with animals and wildlife and things like that.  But that issue isn’t necessarily the packaging people’s issue, that’s a recycling issue as far as I’m concerned.  There needs to be a massive investment in the UK but worldwide in recycling technologies.

So recycling technologies have to change, massively have to change.  And there’s a push for a circular economy which means that for every kilo of plastic that’s used that we can put a kilo back into the process.  There’s a lot of knowledge that’s out there, a lot of studies that have happened and I don’t understand everything, but there is genuine applications that plastic is the only…  Where would we have been over Covid if plastic wasn’t a thing?

Lucia France: Yeah.  I’m sure there’s lots more plastic being used as a result of all the new restrictions in place. 

Robert McEwan: I look at LinkedIn and there’s articles on LinkedIn about how bad plastic is because people have found masks and aprons and plastic gloves on the floor as they go for a walk.  But that’s not plastic, that’s humans, and if there is not the recycling facilities and there’s not the education of everybody as to how these things can be reused and the benefit of it and the effects that they’re doing.  And so it’s not necessarily about the medium that is used, it’s using the right medium for the application, it’s using the right amount of that medium.  There’s a plastic tax happening, I think they’ve targeted April 2022 for it, but there’s not enough recycling happening for everybody to be able to go to 30% recycled content, because there’s not enough volume in the market to be able to do it.

Lucia France: In that respect what would you say are the main mistakes of packaging suppliers in terms of what they do and the environment?

Robert McEwan: I think from a packaging supplier’s point of view they need to focus more on what their packaging does.  There’s an understanding the life-cycle of the customer’s product so that they can see how the packaging has the effects further along the line.  If you put something into a corrugated box that you want to store outside for a long period of time you’re going to get damage.  And understanding that is critical to the mediums that customers use.  

So remove what’s not needed, reduce to a safe level what is needed and recycle.  It’s not difficult.  As long as we have the education and the knowledge and the infrastructure from a national point of view to be able to make sure that that could work together. 

Lucia France: Yeah, I guess it’s about having those systems in place across the board.  So what would you say that customers could do or should do to be more environmentally friendly?

Robert McEwan: Look at the mediums of packaging that you are using and I give the box with the plastic tape as a prime example.  If you can start using paper tape you’ve suddenly got a product that goes straight into recycling and can be 100% reused without any secondary processes and development.  And, yes, use more recycled product.  Make sure your packaging is 100% recyclable.  But then the critical one is knowing what amount of packaging you need to make it safe for your product to get to where it needs to.  I call it cross-contamination, it’s probably the wrong word, but if you’ve got plastics working with papers and they’re stuck together, and laminates and things like that, it’s all very difficult for that to go back through the process and have any use when it becomes a recycled granulate.

Lucia France: So Robert thanks for sharing your thoughts about packaging and the environment.  Can you tell us a little bit about what you think of packaging and sustainability?

Robert McEwan: It’s a big subject, sustainability.  I think one area that isn’t taken into consideration so much is sustainability as far as things like it’s not very sustainable if you have to repackage products, it’s not very sustainable if you deliver the product and it’s damaged.  So there’s far more to sustainability than what is really focused on at the moment.

I think that’s something that will come out as time goes on.  But sustainability is a huge subject in itself that an overall view as to how that affects each company individually.  We are working with companies that spend a fortune on what they call rework because of products not getting to customers or returns and things like that, it’s just not very sustainable.

I think that it depends on what the companies’ focus is at the time.  At the moment there’s a lot of focus on the environment as we’ve said and probably rightly so, but there’s other things that need to be considered as far as sustainability is concerned.  Without going into the minutiae of each area I think it’s really important for customers to realise is that the breadth of these things.  Because we sometimes get narrowed up by what’s prevalent in the press or what people are shouting about the most and miss another area that could be having more harm than the area that is in the public view at that time.

Lucia France: Yeah.  It’s sort of going back to what you were saying about paper, in the 80s and early 90s that was the item that you weren’t supposed to have as packaging.

Robert McEwan: It’s an important point to probably make at this point that when I started selling, paper was a bad thing.  The idea of cutting trees down to make packaging was a definite no-no.  I think the industry reacted to it in the way I’d like to see plastics react to it, is that they invested in recycling facilities, they built factories that could produce recycled paper that had the technical abilities to operate like a virgin paper, in exactly the same way I’d like to see plastics react.  Because they were able to turn it around to get to a point where far more paper is being recycled, the quality of the recycled paper is far better and in most instances you can’t tell the difference between a recycled paper and a virgin paper.  And if they can get to that level with plastics, and they should be able to, it just needs somebody to bite the bullet and do the investment.  And sustainability from an environmental point of view would then be vastly improved, but then you still need an eye on what other areas of your sustainability, because if you have to repack everything, as I said before, it’s not very sustainable.

Lucia France: Yeah, absolutely.  Well Robert thank you for sharing your thoughts on what is obviously quite a complex topic there.  Thank you.

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