Maja on moving away from plastic packaging
Plastic is one of the most popular packaging materials in the world. But single-use plastic packaging can, in the worst case, end up as waste that pollutes our environment and is not recycled as much compared to paper packaging. That is why IKEA has decided to phase out plastic from consumer packaging by 2028. We talked to Maja and Tommi about material innovation, replacing plastics and how coconut husk, beer brewing by-products or shellfish industry waste might hold the answer to more sustainable packaging.
Maja loves going to the supermarkets. But it's not for the love of shopping like it is for a lot of us. The packaging development leader at IKEA often goes to an array of corporate and boutique supermarkets for one reason - to see the way they pack their products and get inspired.
"I find it very interesting to observe that a lot of us don't quite pay attention to how products are packaged. We just pick them," says Maja Kjellberg.
So, then what is her favourite packaging?
"The best packaging is no packaging or something as close as possible to no packaging and doesn't leave big amounts of waste," says Maja.
While no packaging may not be an option for many, having packaging solutions that create minimal waste and prominently use recyclable materials is a big focus for IKEA. The first big step in that direction is the IKEA commitment to phase out plastics from consumer packaging by 2028. And, for Maja, the plan is to find alternate solutions for packaging that can replace plastics.
Plastics are pretty much everywhere. From carrying groceries to creating a line of protection on new electrical devices and easier transportation of beddings, plastics have found a way into our daily lives. The are many reasons for plastics to be such go-to packaging material. To begin with, plastic is strong, durable, and lightweight. It is also versatile in the multiple ways it can be used and is a low-cost material globally.
The flip side is that most plastics are not biodegradable, and when it is not disposed of responsibly, the environmental implications are severe. For example, it's estimated that over 86 million metric tons of plastic are currently in our oceans. If things don't change, there will be more plastic waste than fish by 2050.
"What we're doing is trying to find alternative materials or alternative ways of packaging for our products without using plastic. Plastic has been used for many years, it's been driving costs down, but it's also been driving us further away from our sustainability goals," says Maja.
The plastics phase-out from consumer packaging that IKEA has committed to will happen in steps. It will start with new products that are being introduced to the range by 2025, and for the existing range, plastics will be phased out by 2028.
One of the first steps in this significant direction for Maja revolves around innovation for packaging materials. It means that IKEA is looking into renewable and recycled materials that are cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and perform well as packaging material.
For this, work is already ongoing to map out where and how plastics are used today. Maja and her team are also analysing the functionality of the packaging material currently being used – is it for safer transportation or to protect the product's surface from scratches and dust?
"Once we start pinpointing why we are using plastics, it is easier to find alternative materials. Plastic and paper-based materials are two very different things and will never offer the same qualities or characteristics. So, it's not a quick swap from plastic to paper," says Maja.
Innovating new packaging solutions
Several innovations are going on at IKEA to identify new packaging solutions that are as good as plastics but without the negative environmental implications. A packaging acceleration program is currently underway to find future materials that are beyond paper and corrugated boards.
"We are teaming up with startups to see what's cooking in the field of packaging, more sustainable packaging materials, and work with our suppliers to drive development," says Maja.
Through the acceleration programme, IKEA is working on two themes. One is to understand the nuances of packaging for omnichannel businesses as more and more customers opt for home delivery for their products. The second is to scout for future packaging materials, which could take even 5-10 years of research and development but are genuinely ground-breaking.
Along with Impact Hub, IKEA has so far evaluated dozens of different companies. By the end of this acceleration program, the aim is to find a handful of companies that IKEA will initiate some sort of collaboration with.
"We're learning about different materials. Many of them are very scientific, and there is a big focus on sustainability, which is inspiring to see," says Maja.
From what Maja has seen so far, the feedstock for many of these innovative solutions comes from the waste product of other production processes. For, e.g., a few companies are working on using the waste from the shellfish industry as a feedstock to create a bioplastic. There are also instances of coconut husk being used as a feedstock, which otherwise is burnt—another company uses by-products from beer brewing for creating packaging material.
Walking the talk
Don't be surprised if you notice a subtle change in the packaging of blinds in IKEA stores. About six months from now, one may begin to see a few IKEA blinds packed in neatly corrugated or cardboard packs, not the thick PET plastic coverings available today, marking the start of the change in the textile segment.
For packaging solution engineer Tommi Väyrynen, this is a victory of sorts, as he has been working on the IKEA ambition to phase out plastics from consumer packaging for almost two years now.
"Our ambition is to have a plastic-free solution for consumer packaging. Corrugated board as a packaging material is quite well known to IKEA. But it's not a standard solution for products like blinds. The shift also involves changing the mindset of suppliers, who have been using plastics, and those of the buyers, who have been picking blinds in see-through packaging," says Tommi.
The corrugated packaging for blinds is just the first step; more environmentally friendly packaging solutions in the space of textiles will follow soon.
IKEA has also changed the packaging for its light bulb range LEDARE and SOLHETTA. These used to come in blister packs earlier, including form-pressed plastic. The team decided to put the bulbs into small cartons to do away with plastics, making the package much easier for the customer to open.
But getting rid of plastics in packaging comes with its challenges, besides behaviour change for shoppers and suppliers.
The move to corrugated boards from see-through plastics for IKEA blinds is a good example of that. The change also increases the dimensions of the package, making it a pinch bulkier but with more protection, which is important as customers order more and more online.
Small challenges aside, Maja hopes to find ways to contribute to a world without plastic waste and enable people to make more sustainable choices.
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