Fact-checking sustainability promises with packaging database

Researchers at the ETH in Switzerland have created a database of over 3,000 primary and secondary packaging items from the range of the retailer Denner as a basis for ensuring more environmentally friendly packaging.

ETH economist Catharina Bening and her fellow researchers are working together with the Swiss retailer Denner to discover how major sustainability gains can be made through packaging. The “Sustainability in Business Lab” (sus.lab) aims to put scientific findings on sustainability into practice, working together with industry partners.

How much packaging is in your shopping basket?

To find out, ETH project leader Julia Bachmann gathered packaging data for all 3,605 products in Denner’s range. In collaboration with the Chair of Ecological Systems Design, she and her team of students meticulously unwrapped every product, measured and weighed the packaging, and identified the materials used. Denner provided the group with access to its distribution centres and shared its sales figures for the purpose of the study.

“We often hear about new ways to reduce packaging – for example, loose products and reuse containers,” says Bening. “But we still don’t know enough about the kind of packaging that ends up in the shopping basket of the average (Swiss) consumer. Now, our database is revealing for the very first time exactly what sort of packaging is used at the product level, and how much.”

The database will provide a firm foundation for meaningful sustainability targets when it comes to packaging. “In effect, we have now built a fact-​checker for sustainability promises,” says Bachmann.

Of the 50,000 tonnes of packaging material per year, almost half is glass, almost a quarter paper, almost a fifth plastic and less than a tenth metal. The good news is that most of this can be recycled.

The data that the team have gathered for weight, materials and sales is just the beginning. Through detailed analysis and joint workshops, they will go on to reveal the key steps that firms can take in order to have the greatest environmental impact.

Industry-wide solutions

“The project with Denner is important because one of the major retailers had to take the first step to get the whole industry moving,” Bening says. The long-​term objective, however, is to create industry-​wide solutions based on accessible and traceable data.

The key principle is to reduce packaging material to a minimum, and to maintain a closed cycle for the remaining material to ensure that as little as possible needs to be recycled or disposed of.

Image credit: Kurt Pfister / Denner

You may also like...

Leave a Reply