5 minutes with Sarah Greenwood from the University of Sheffield

The future of branded packaging and technology

16 & 17 February 2022 | Hall 1 NEC Birmingham

5 minutes with Sarah Greenwood from the University of Sheffield

Sarah Greenwood is a part of a group of academics working at The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures on the UKRI-funded project ‘Plastics: Redefining Single-Use’. She chats to us about the work she is leading to address the problems associated with Single-use plastic items, her outlook on Coronavirus and what the next year looks like for the packaging industry. 

Q1: With consumer pressure on removing plastic what is your take on the industry’s reaction to the sustainability crisis?

Although consumer pressure has been steadily building for years, Blue Planet 2 was a watershed moment for the plastics packaging industry.  Unfortunately the Packaging Industry’s response, for the first six months at least, was infighting – non-plastics packaging manufacturers claiming their material is better when we know that there is no such thing as one sustainable packaging material, it is whichever is best for a particular application.  There is still too much greenwashing out there although this does seem to be improving.

20 years ago companies had the classic silo mentality –e.g. ‘the PE film we make is recyclable, its somebody else’s problem to recycle it’.  Now I am really encouraged where companies across the value chain are collaborating to solve the plastics waste problem – e.g. initiatives from RECOUP and CEFLEX. 


Q2: Where do you see the opportunities for refillable and re-usable packaging?

There are many different kinds of reuse, but they can be divided very roughly into two types – REFILL where the ownership of the packaging (or Tupperware!) lies with the consumer – e.g. for refills in a zero-waste store, or RETURN where the consumer returns the packaging after use, and the store/brand washes it, refills and it is used again for the next customer. 

There are some potentially obvious wins which are already in use – for refillable/ bring your own –  dry, long shelf-life granular or powdered products, or liquid homecare products; for return systems (where the packaging is owned by the brand-owner or a pool of brand owners) a good example is milk delivered from local dairies to the doorstep i.e. the old fashioned milkman model.  There is lots more opportunity though. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that moving to reuse systems presents a $10bn opportunity worldwide.    

There is an opportunity here for all brands to do something ground-breaking.  Any reuse system makes life more complicated for the user (and the operator!) so there must be an additional incentive too – whether this is added functionality or saves the consumer time or money in some other way.  Moving to a reuse system has to make sense both economically and environmentally.

Small to medium enterprises have a good chance at succeeding at this as they can adapt their supply chains more readily. But we are speaking with some large brands looking into this seriously as well.

Refill might be more suitable in some circumstances, return in others.  It has also been shown that when a supply chain gets over a certain size, single-use is better from a life cycle analysis perspective – e.g. it makes sense to use returnable crates when shipping fresh produce across the UK, but not if importing bananas from another continent.

Q3: With concerns around hygiene and now the Corona Virus pandemic do you think this will affect public uptake of reusable solutions?

That’s a very good question. I don’t think it will put off the die-hard environmentalists, but we’ll have to see – maybe that could form some of the next part of our work!

Before the government called for all non-essential outlets to close, it was good to hear that Starbucks was still offering a discount to people who took their reusable cup in, even though they wouldn’t serve them in it.  My colleague Dr Harriet Baird in Psychology says that:

‘’From a behavioural point of view, the fact that Starbucks is still honouring a discount for people that bring in their reusable cup, even if they are served their drink in a disposable cup, is good. One of the key barriers to using a reusable cup is forgetting it. Creating habits is key and research indicates that the repetition of a single action (e.g. using a reusable coffee cup) in a consistent context (e.g. when buying takeaway hot drinks) is essential for habit formation. So, maintaining the discount for people who bring in their reusable cup will continue to promote good habits, and will avoid breaking habits that people have established with respect to remembering and using their reusable cup.”

Q4: Tell me about the work you are doing at The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.

Our project Plastics: Redefining Single Use started in Jan 2019. Along with 7 other universities the University of Sheffield has been awarded £1M from UKRI’s Plastics Research Innovation Fund over 18 months to look at ways of addressing the problems associated with Single-use plastic items. We believe that there are many benefits to the use of plastics and that it is the way dispose of them that is the problem, not plastic itself.  

We also believe that to address the problem it needs to be approached from many angles which is why we have assembled a team of almost 40 academics across all 7 faculties of the university.  We have brought together polymer experts, scientists and engineers, environmental scientists and social scientists, working together in multidisciplinary teams together with a wide range of external stakeholders, including multinational brands such as Unilever, retailers including M&S, The Co-op and Morrisons, plastics processors and even our local dairy, Our Cow Molly who supply the University’s cafes.

Together we are working on 3 proof of concept studies – Medical Plastics, Agricultural Plastics and the one I am leading on reusable plastic packaging.  With any academic research, there needs to be a research question, and ours is ‘how do we facilitate reuse as mainstream?’ to do this we are identifying barriers – behavioural, technical and cost, and looking at how to motivate consumers to use these models.  We are developing a system to determine when reuse is the best option using Life Cycle Assessment and are investigating the best materials to use for returnable and refillable packaging components.  Our overall aim is to develop a workable returnable packaging model – this was a big ask to do in the time we have been given to work on this.  Hopefully we will be able to secure additional funding to continue our work. 

Q5: How did you get into the packaging industry?

I studied for a master’s degree in Polymer Science which led me into working as a polymer technologist.  My first job out of uni was working as a development technologist on car disc brake pads (which have a have a whole other plastics waste problem with the dust they create!). From there I went to BP who then owned a film-blowing, printing and conversion factory (BXL in Yorkshire for those that remember).  I was impressed by the variety and immediacy of the industry, so studied for the IOM3 Diploma in Packaging Technology intending to become a pack tech at a retailer, which I did (Asda) before moving onto Fox’s Biscuits and then my own consultancy, which I continue to run in addition to my work at the university. 


Q6: What is the packaging innovation you have been most impressed by and why?

Garcon Wines’ flat eco-wine bottle.  It is lighter and spatially smaller than conventional glass wine bottles (so causes fewer CO2 emissions), is recyclable, and importantly is a really beautiful object. Whenever I give a talk on packaging I take one with me and people just love the look and feel of it.

The Hagen Daaz ice cream container developed by Touch for the TerraCycle’s Loop system is also a wonderful example of packaging design. The stainless steel container looks close enough to the standard board container for consumer acceptance, but has added functionality in that it is double-walled so keeps the contents frozen for longer, and, because it is designed specifically for reuse, there are no sharp corners for product to get stuck in, it is easily disassembled, and the parts are nestable, making the return process more efficient.

Finally, Anita Roddick’s decision when she set up the Body Shop in the 1970s to use off-the-shelf packaging for her cosmetics brand and to offer refills to customers.  The Body Shop made a huge impact on me with their ‘Once is Not Enough’ Reuse Refill Recycle Campaign in the early 1990s (I still have my badge!) and importantly were the first store to take back plastic packaging for recycling in the UK, at a time when we did not have doorstep collections.  https://scgreenwood.co.uk/classic-packaging-the-body-shop-boston/


Q7: What do you think the packaging industry can expect in the next 12 months?

Where to start?  At the risk of stating the obvious, still reeling from the effects of Corona Virus.  We’ve already heard this week that the introduction of DRS is now going to be delayed, so maybe we can expect the introduction of the plastics tax to be delayed too.  The public attitude to plastic may well have changed by then – recognising more its benefits in the prevention of disease as well as the waste management issues which dominate our opinions currently.  I do feel that the industry needs to be preparing more for alternative use models (i.e. refill and return systems), whether individual companies will or not is up to them…

Share this article

Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Scroll to Top