Packaging database for fact-checking sustainability promises

ETH researchers 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.
The documented packaging is not only made up of plastic, but also of glass, paper and metal. (Image: Kurt Pfister / Denner)

The presents are unwrapped, the takeaway is eaten and the latest online order has arrived – and now there is packaging everywhere. Packaging that is not reused or recycled consumes a great deal of resources, which is why reducing packaging is a top priority for retailers.

ETH economist Catharina Bening and her fellow researchers are now 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.

As part of its sustainability programme, the retailer has set itself the goal of reducing the packaging material used for its own brands by 20 percent by 2025, and aims to recycle all packaging materials over the long term. Christopher Rohrer, Head of Sustainability at Denner, says, "Our collaboration with ETH makes us the first retailer to have the opportunity to tackle the issue of packaging on a sustainable and scientific basis."

“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.

Sustainable packaging material identified

The team found that Denner uses approximately 50,000 tonnes of packaging material per year in total. Of that, 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 researchers also have their own ideas on how to reduce packaging. For example, most of the paper and cardboard is used for secondary packaging, – that is, boxes used to transport products to Denner’s branches. It would not be a major challenge for the retailer to replace these with reusable standardised containers.

However, 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

Bening hopes that the solutions identified by her team will help to drive change across the retail industry. “The project with Denner is important because one of the major retailers had to take the first step to get the whole industry moving,” she 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.