Between the lines

Joanne Hunter meets John Swift, who works in Brussels to keep the packaging supply chain within the lines drawn by EU legislation.

In June John Swift was elected chairman of EUROPEN, the European organisation for packaging and the environment, whose members are brand owners, packaging converters and material manufacturers.

I met him in the Brussels offices of SCA Packaging, where he works as Regulatory Affairs Director for the paper and paperboard specialist, covering a wide range of sustainability and environmental issues.

How does the chair of EUROPEN go about setting the agenda to address the interests and concerns of members from so many different sectors?

It is a collective decision of priorities, he explains. “We do try to benefit all members. They are very active, and from bottom up take the lead. My role is to make sure the ship is steady and going in the right direction.”

One would think senior company representatives in packaging material sectors that can go head-to-head for business in the commercial world might find it hard to leave competitive urges outside the EUROPEN committee room door. On the contrary, says Mr Swift: “For a multi-sector, multi-material organisation EUROPEN is surprisingly harmonious” and in fact the broad scope of members “becomes a strength and provides the balance”.

The overriding matter of environmental legislation is what brings all material sectors together under EUROPEN. The organisation headed by managing director Julian Carroll was founded to ensure the proportionate, fair and equal treatment of the packaging industry as a whole. The Essential Requirements within the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) legislation are at the core of the EUROPEN agenda.

“Compliance avoids over-packaging and other breaches,” says Mr Swift, and how to demonstrate compliance is contained in EUROPEN’s Essential Requirements for Packaging in Europe: A Practical Guide to Using the CEN Standards.

The industry apparently is learning some lessons. Says Mr Swift: “Packaging to landfill is absolutely decreasing.”

“At SCA, we aim to give customers the least amount of packaging possible, and it would be a similar aim of all members in EUROPEN.”

How is EUROPEN’s success measured?

“When EU legislation is drafted that’s sensible and appropriate to members’ needs,” answers Mr Swift. “Successes in the end are measured by whatever is achieved. In the current waste legislation, prevention is at the top of the tree and landfill at the bottom,” and this is an unarguably good result for EUROPEN, for members and the environment.

This summer, EUROPEN and the grocery sector trade and industry body ECR Europe published Packaging in the Sustainability Agenda: A Guide for

Corporate Decision Makers.

“The document is part of a continuum to mitigate climate change by producing products that cause less stress on the environment, and it brings a bit of sense into the discussion,” he believes.

The Guide will have the desired effect if it reaches the notice of marketing people, to inform them that packaging choices are not arbitrary but aim to balance the environmental effects, says Mr Swift. More explicitly, calculated design decisions can avoid the consequences of sub-optimal primary and secondary packaging.

It is hoped the Guide will apply pressure through the supply chains of Europe to improve packaging specification. Also, pressure bearing down on brands from their customers to reduce the environmental impact of packaging, will continue to be ‘a big factor’ influencing change, believes Mr Swift.

He reports that on both sides of the Atlantic, “There is now broad agreement that sustainability is a journey, not a destination. We’re in a most useful and continuing collaboration with the Global CEO Forum and America’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), both being influential in producing common packaging standards,” he says.

Recently, the Global CEO Forum made up of bosses of major consumer packaged goods and retail companies, set up the Global Packaging Project with a view to creating consistency in the sustainability actions of stakeholders.

A US-European working group, with Unilever and Tesco taking a lead, has started work on the metrics to measure sustainability based on the life cycle of packaging. According to SPC, standard guidance for the supply chain will simplify information requests for packaging.

But for any packaging concept there are times when it becomes tricky to balance environmental benefits, and the use of expanded polystyrene in combination with corrugated packaging is one example, says Mr Swift: “EPS might be seen as problematic but as a great cushioning medium it avoids wastage in products.”

Finally, he says: “Packaging has done the job once the public gets it. After that, it’s just seen as a nuisance. I don’t think we’ll ever convince people to love packaging but that should not stop us trying.”