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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

20 April 2020 - A new report from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership provides recommendations for businesses and government to help address the issue of eliminating plastic waste. The publication examines how companies from natural water and soft drinks sector can adopt a considered approach in their future packaging material decision making.

When we set out to undertake the work for this report, we, and the businesses we are working with, were operating in what feels like a different world. Now we are all addressing a new, common concern: a global health crisis of unprecedented scale that has led to unimaginable social, economic and political change, as well as some of the most challenging and extraordinary operating contexts for business that we have seen in modern times. Of course, while we quite rightly need to address the immediate health crisis in the short-term, we should not lose sight of the longer-term goals for a sustainable economy. As we emerge from this crisis period, business and government, will collectively need to reconsider the approaches they are taking to tackling other social and environmental concerns, such as the plastic packaging waste challenge.

In eliminating plastic packaging waste from UK natural source water and soft drinks, one option would be to switch materials, and there are instances of this already occurring. In making this shift, businesses need to ensure they understand the full impacts of any alternative, so they do not create or worsen other environmental consequences. This report examines the relative impact of UK natural source water and soft drinks packaging materials based on the data currently available, highlighting from the findings that it is important for businesses to take a considered approach in their packaging material decision-making.

Download the reportTowards sustainable packagin materials

When examining the relative impact of materials across three key  metrics: water usage, carbon emissions and circularity (recycling rates and recycled content), not one material came out clearly as having the lowest relative impact in the areas examined. Further to this, the analysis found that developing more circular systems, particularly to increase levels of recycling and the use of recycled content, can reduce the impact of all materials. This presents an opportunity for business to work collaboratively with government and key stakeholders to increase the circularity of all packaging material types across the natural source water and soft drinks value chains.

However, the analysis also found several challenges, both in the approaches to measurement and in the methodologies used and data availability. In addressing these issues, the natural source water and soft drinks sector has the opportunity to lead in developing collaborative approaches, drawing in other key stakeholders who use or produce packaging.

When considering what approach to take, this report suggests businesses in the natural source water and soft drinks value chain should:

  1. Carefully consider all the impacts of a potential packaging material
  2. Seek agreement on key impact metrics
  3. Ensure key impact metrics are evidence-based
  4. Align with long-term goals
  5. Participate in sector-level collaboration

To explore how businesses can work to address some of the challenges and opportunities this report identifies the following next steps to take this work forward:

  1. Assess whether current business targets on packaging support long-term targets
  2. Support the sector to identify and agree consistent impact metrics
  3. Inform academic research that could model future impacts of materials

Please contact us if you are interested in working with us on these actions.


Citing this briefing

Please refer to this publication as University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). (2020). Towards sustainable packaging materials: Examining the relative impact of materials in the natural source water and soft drinks value chain. Cambridge, UK: the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

Creating the future we want

The shock to the global system caused by Covid-19 means that the decade that we earmarked for getting our climate on track for net zero by 2050 and making progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals will play out in a new paradigm, where transformational change takes on wholly new possibilities.

The pandemic has revealed lack of resilience in a system which has already failed to meet the needs of millions of people and is unprepared for future shocks driven by climate change and environmental degradation. This raises big questions about our established economic and societal norms.

We can undoubtedly emerge as a stronger global community and more resilient society if we now seize the opportunity to collectively chart a course towards the future we want.

CISL is launching a new platform for leaders to identify, discuss and reflect on some of the most important questions facing us, as we deal with an immediate threat and consider what is needed to secure a long term sustainable future for all.

Subscribe to our newsletter to be among the first invited to participate in The Future we Want platform.


Author and acknowledgements

This report was written by Beverley Cornaby, with input and support from Eliot Whittington and Serena Liuni. Additional research was carried out by Hannah Van Den Bergh. We would like to thank the businesses supporting this publication: Brecon Mineral Water; Britvic plc; Danone Waters (UK & Ireland); Harrogate Water Brands; Highland Spring Group; Lucozade Ribena Suntory; Montgomery Waters; the Natural Source Waters Association; Nestlé Waters UK; Roxane UK; Shepley Spring; and, Wenlock Spring, for their input and feedback.


Copyright © 2020 University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Some rights reserved.


The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.


Published: April 2020