Ecodesign, a major challenge for truly sustainable packaging
The conference area of the ALL4PACK Emballage Paris 2022 exhibition hosted on 23 November a conference entitled “Ecodesign: let’s be facilitators of transition solutions”. Experts were invited to share their views on reducing the environmental impact, product design and their life cycle.
On 23 November, Emmanuel Thaillardat welcomed Nicolas Salah, CEO of Innelia, Thierry Varlet, Managing Director of Innovons 360°, and Christophe Morin, creator of the company Packagile, to discuss the major theme of ecodesign. These experts came together to dust off the vast topic of ecodesign, sharing their own definition and its challenges.
What is ecodesign?
Today, the term ecodesign is a bit nebulous for the average person to grasp, but it basically refers to the consideration of environmental impact in the design of products and their packaging.
From the outset, Nicolas Salah spoke about having a “good farming sense, a bit of methodology, but also the concretisation of objectives through functional studies”. He added that this approach, which was still incidental a few years ago, is now becoming a primary requirement within functional specifications. Christophe Morin confirmed that it is necessary for companies to continually measure the ecological footprint of their products on the environment, but also to find technical solutions that are more respectful of the environment, while respecting their specifications.
Thierry Varlet completed this definition, stating that such a process is systemic, and therefore requires collective intelligence by integrating all stakeholders in the process – packaging suppliers and marketers as well as local authorities, the State and consumers themselves.
The importance of synergy and dialogue
Christophe Morin also pointed out that these more virtuous solutions are often also more expensive to implement, hence the need to support these advances. However, large economic players, particularly distributors, often impose this requirement for ecodesign, but do not give (or give very few) tools for action to the other parties involved in the process, on the pretext that they are powerful.
According to Nicolas Salah, this approach is above all castrating and has little effect in reality. Thierry Varlet, for his part, reminded us that the term has existed for 30 years in the texts, and that despite this, it is still used extensively by large-scale distribution for “greenwashing” purposes. He also regrets that the public authorities have not been more supportive of this movement, with the introduction of lower costs or fees, preferential VAT rates or even subsidies for companies taking concrete ecodesign steps, for example.
However, it appears that ecodesign is not just a ‘dream’. Thierry Varlet talked about the priority of implementing more rigorous sourcing of materials and research into materials that are more respectful of the environment and the lives of consumers, such as nautilium, a biomaterial derived from the sea bed. He also spoke about the need to build adapted recycling channels for PE or PP, which do not exist today. He described this as an inconsistency and even failure, insisting on the fact that the sector would not be where it is today if the initiative had been taken from the start.
Nicolas Salah corroborated this view, focusing his argument on the substitution of plastic in packaging for more sustainable materials such as cardboard. The expert also talked about ecodesign, i.e. taking into account product objectives and adapting them as much as possible to respect the environment, which requires reflection on the product’s functionality and a certain rationalisation of the means to achieve this. For example, by using more expensive packaging, but 80% less than the basic packaging, and more durable.
Christophe Morin insisted on the need to increase the recyclability of packaging, as well as to increase the rate of materials from recycling. He also spoke about projects such as “CharcuPac”, co-financed by Citeo, which aimed to develop an in-line thermoformed, single-material and sealed tray. A perfect example of eco-design according to Christophe Morin, as the final result respects both its economic and industrial objectives, and the environmental prerequisites.
Thinking about materials and then thinking about a recycling channel therefore seems to be a good basis for understanding the notion of ecodesign. However, the experts insist on the difficulty of this type of approach, and even its hazardous aspect, because marketers, who are already subject to the complexity of the latter, must also juggle the laws and regulations that are often out of touch with reality, and which, moreover, are constantly changing. On the other hand, they also have to deal with existing means of processing materials, if they exist at all.
The panel discussed the possibilities offered by the transition from single-use to reusable packaging, warning in turn against what appears to be a panacea, but which very often can generate a high carbon footprint, due, in particular, to the kilometres travelled or the resources allocated for reinjecting single-use packaging into the system.
The expert conclusion
Thierry Varlet concluded by saying that it is essential to forget the carbon footprint of the packaging and to think first and foremost about the overall footprint of the product once it has been packaged because, in his opinion, “forgetting the function of the packaging means forgetting the service it provides, hence the need to be intelligent in our approach by taking into account the impact of the product as a whole.
Nicolas Salah finally addressed the importance of not deviating from the concept of ecodesign, which can only be implemented through a sincere desire for change on the part of the sector. There is no miracle recipe, because it is only a tool,” he says. Each case will have its own solutions depending on the objectives set by the stakeholders.