We are entering the final throes of wrapping and parcelling up our Christmas gifts. Lots of us are becoming more environmentally aware about how much paper and cardboard we use at this time of year. We can get everything ‘all wrapped up’ in 100% recyclable paper, reuse boxes and brown envelopes, and stick to paper based products rather than using plastic. But between online shopping and actually sending your presents to their recipients, it’s impossible to avoid packaging.

In the UK, we send around two billion parcels every year. That’s a combination of you to your loved ones and companies to their customers.

What’s the problem with cardboard?

In an in-depth report on the impact of increased home deliveries in The Guardian, Samanth Subramanian explains: “The cardboard box is the most potent symbol of the home-delivered world. It reminds us of the quandary of choosing between our consumption and the health of the planet. Even adding 1mm of thickness to the cardboard, to make it hardier, might use up a substantial forest when multiplied across hundreds of billions of boxes. A heavier box costs more to buy, and it also uses more fuel to ship.”

Cardboard is recyclable and a better option than plastic. But are we still can’t affords to be frivolous in our usage. Every link in the chain between an item leaving its initial destination and making its way to your doorstep (hopefully) has a financial and environmental cost.

What can be done to limit cardboard packaging waste?

This is where it gets exciting. The BBC reported from a factory in Dijon (France) where creative engineers are working on the problem of ‘rightsizing’. In other words, making sure we stop receiving products in boxes that are entirely the wrong size and are often full of bubble wrap, polystyrene fillers, paper or air.

The new machines scan each item, or group of items, to be contained by the box using laser technology. Then the item moves along the production line to where the cardboard square has been precisely cut and creased. Finally, the box is folded around the item, to an exact fit.

These machines can pack 1,000 items per hour, much faster than the human equivalent. It can make 10 million different sizes of box and is currently being used to package products that have been ordered online.

Who is driving this innovation?

DS Smith are a cardboard only packaging manufacturer. Alex Manisty of DS Smith showed the BBC around their innovative factory and said: “I mean I think there’s a real responsibility here for us to do it in a better way. It matters because it costs our customers money because they’re using boxes which are too big. It matters because they are filling up the empty space in those boxes with bubble wrap and balls of paper which is not good for the environment. And it matters in a way most of all because those larger than necessary parcels are filling up all those white vans in our cities.”

The company’s CEO, Miles Roberts, seems very excited about their future developments, telling the Evening Standard: “This is just the first generation; there will be so much innovation from here. We’re doing more and more rightsizing, (customising boxes to take out the unnecessary gaps), product protection inside the packaging, and personalising packaging to Jim,” Me? “Yes, you. We can print on the outside: ‘Hi, Jim, you bought some shirts from us six months ago, they must be looking a bit shabby by now, why not buy some more — they’re on offer again…”

If you are involved in interesting product packaging creations, make sure you are claiming the R&D tax credits you are entitled to. Our average claim is £49,000. Imagine how much of a boost that could give your next R&D project.

Jamie Smith