In the quest for sustainability, the received wisdom is that while challenger brands introduce sub-scale innovation, major corporates are sitting on their hands, happy with the status quo. 

Not so. A new survey has found that a whopping 92% of packaging experts responsible for packaging R&D, technology, design and sustainability for the leading UK FMCG brands want to stop using any plastic in their consumer packaging. And not as a principle they can commit to at some dim and distant point in the future either. They want to achieve this in the next five years. 

The study of 100 experts, commissioned by Aquapak ahead of the Rethinking Materials summit today at Hilton London Bankside, found that just over a quarter of those polled (27%) expect to shift away from plastic by 2027, while 35% expect a deadline of 2028, and 28% have 2029 in their sights.

It’s a tight timeline. And the majority (87%) of those questioned said they wanted this change actually to happen quicker.

This is clearly ambitious. Pringles, for example, first trialled paper prototypes of its iconic tubes in Tesco in 2020. It took a further four years to arrive at its latest, and final, iteration.

That development time is necessary to conduct all the required testing. As Karen Graley, head of technology for packaging at M&S Food, told The Grocer earlier this year: “Any packaging change we do, we need to test all the way through to the end of life. If you’ve got a 12-month shelf life, we need to test the packaging for 12 months.” So in the case of long-life foods, the process is, well, long.

Could anything speed up progress? Almost half of respondents (47%) in the Aquapak study believed tighter environmental regulation could be one driver – in the form of taxation on materials with poor environmental performances. Speaking at the summit today, Nick Cliffe, deputy challenge director at Innovate UK, echoed the point. “As a driver for innovation, regulation is incredibly strong,” he said.

But there’s a push and a pull required to achieve change. In the survey, while the higher cost of alternative packaging was cited by 53% of respondents, almost as many (50%) cited lack of availability of alternative packaging as a barrier to change. “Scalability is definitely an issue,” said Cliffe. ”Polyethylene has 70 years of innovation behind it, and it’s 10 times cheaper today, so there’s a leap of faith,” Cliffe explained. “We won’t be able to turn on a tap and replace it overnight. A concerted effort from all stakeholders is going to be needed.”

Unilever has led the charge among leading corporates in attempting to use more sustainable packaging. Colin Kerr, Unilever’s global head of R&D packaging excellence & technology, used the conference to outline a new approach Unilever is adopting, which is rooted in “reality”, he said: delivering against achievable goals. And talking to The Grocer, he stressed the importance of collaboration. 

“When you think about cost,” he said, “the way to address it is by looking at how to collaborate and how to scale, collectively, bringing people together to try and find solutions that have broad applications. Because as soon as you’re working in niche areas, with small volumes, there is always a potential cost challenge, which is absolutely an inhibitor to being able to go further.”

Collaboration was a theme that came up time and again. And there were multiple tales of consumer brands across different sectors beginning to join forces and participate in open innovation frameworks. But there’s a long way to go, Kerr told the summit. 

“We need to start bringing people together – and probably in a way that’s very different from the way we’ve historically done so. It’s only by bringing people together in new, innovative ways that we’ll be able to crack the challenges we’ve talked about here.”

As a conduit for bringing the industry together, spanning packaging startups, fmcg giants and investors, the two-day Rethinking Materials summit was an important step. But for that 2029 deadline ever to approach a reality, the pace on that journey of 1,000 miles needs to quicken.