Sarah Greenwood packaging fairy playing the fiddle

Interview with Sarah Greenwood: the fiddle-playing packaging fairy

Interview with Sarah Greenwood a sustainable packaging specialist – aka the packaging fairy. 

Sarah Greenwood‘s packaging expertise makes her invaluable for our projects Plastics: Redefining Single-Use and Many Happy Returns. In this interview Sarah explains how fiddle playing helps her organise events and why reuse is better than recycling. She also wonders if the current focus on plastic waste is a dangerous distraction from climate change. 

Packaging – especially plastic packaging – is in the news a lot at the moment. As an expert who’s worked in packaging for many years, what do you make of all the scrutiny? 

I wish there was more coverage in the media about how plastic packaging, when used effectively, can be a tool in the prevention of food waste and therefore climate change. There is too much greenwash out there, which people are all too ready to believe, and who can blame them when this side of the dialogue is missing?

It bugs me that packaging gets such a bad rap. Because packaging experts will always be trying to provide packaging that is as efficient and cheap as possible whilst maximising the protection of the product it contains. And cheap is often better for the environment, because cheaper packaging often means less packaging, and so the use of fewer resources. 

What keeps you motivated?

Although packaging and plastics are getting a lot of flack, there is also momentum for creating change at the moment, which wasn’t there a couple of years ago. 

For instance, it’s good to see the UK Plastics Pact making progress (and I’m delighted to be included in the UKPP sprint group for reusable packaging).

What would be an easy change to packaging to make it more sustainable? 

We could get rid of the extra packaging, like shrink wrap, that connects six packs and multi packs. Why do we need it? There are clearly commercial advantages to retailers keeping it, so kudos to Tesco and Waitrose who both have schemes in place to tackle this.

Sarah Greenwood - packaging fairy
Sarah Greenwood – packaging fairy.

And what should be done in the long term?

We need to move to a circular economy for packaging. The expertise and will to move to a circular economy of packaging is out there. But change is difficult due to infrastructure. We need legislation to make change so companies are not risking it on their own. 

There are also interesting ways to make packaging more sustainable. We can remove packaging and adjust weight (though perception is often that more weight means more value). And we can make things more concentrated, so they are smaller, and the consumer uses less but with the same results. 

We know you’re passionate about folk music and Americana and that you play the fiddle – does your love of music inform your work? 

Yes, I play the fiddle and sing a little in a band. Music has really helped me with public speaking – something I never thought I’d be able to do. Funnily enough, there is a lot of common ground between gigging and delivering a presentation!

As Chair of the North of England Packaging Society, I plan events the same way I organise gigs. I hire a room in a pub, book a couple of speakers, and then have a whip round to cover the room hire. It’s a nice, informal, way to make connections within the industry. We even encourage people who want to have a go at delivering presentations to take part. It’s a bit like doing an open mic! 

Plastics: Redefining Single-Use focuses on reuse over recycling – why is this? 

We have become complacent about consumption because of recycling. 

For example, before the widespread collection of recyclable materials, the office I worked in had a scrap paper box. Every piece was saved. Now it is easier to chuck scrap paper in the recycling rather than find a place to keep it, which is wasteful. 

We should get as much value out of things as we can – by reusing before recycling. Because the recycling process costs energy, and there are always material losses, even if something is said to be ‘100%’ or ‘infinitely’ recyclable. Different reuse models will be more appropriate in different situations and a combination of behavioural science, technology and LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) will help us to determine that.

What’s the most surprising thing your work has shown you about sustainability?

That Life Cycle Analysis can produce counterintuitive results. 

A good example is a case study Grantham Centre speakers often use: a comparison of 2 bottles of mineral water. One is bottled in the UK and one is bottled in France. You would probably think that the bottle with the lowest carbon footprint is the UK produced one – because it hasn’t had to travel as far. But actually it is the French one. 

This is because the French use low-carbon nuclear power and the amount of energy used to make a bottle outweighs the energy used to transport it. Of course the use of nuclear power creates other problems! 

What is one thing you wished everyone knew about packaging?

Packaging is only a small part of the supply chain. How we deal with packaging waste is a problem, but the climate emergency is more important. Packaging is a target because it is tangible and easy to understand. But people are distracted by plastic, perhaps at the expense of other issues. 

Packaging, especially plastic packaging, enables longer supply chains. In many cases the removal of plastic packaging would mean those supply chains would have to be shortened. Otherwise there would be more food waste. And so people would have to change lifestyles.

For example, plastic packaging around cucumbers allows them to be delivered to the UK from Europe. And this allows continuity of supply all through the year. If we want to lose the packaging, we have to go back to how it was in the 1970s, when people ate food seasonally. 

Find out more about Sarah Greenwood packaging fairy at her website

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Interview written by Claire Moran