The Move to Sustainable Packaging Solutions
Stretching the limits of Sustainable Packaging
Packaging is everywhere. It’s fundamental to our lives, so it’s hard to imagine life without it. Packaging serves to contain, protect, preserve and market products. It enables products to arrive from any part of the planet and reach your table. It sustains the quality of products over prolonged periods without losing quality, thereby reducing losses. Nevertheless, packaging, particularly plastic packaging, has developed a bad reputation when it comes to its environmental impact.
Over the years, there has been a massive rise in Global awareness and efforts to reduce or eliminate plastic packaging altogether in favour of more “sustainable” solutions. It is interesting to see this development because the concept of a “plastic-free world” may seem quite utopian. As a recent World Wildlife Fund Position Paper stated: Plastic does not belong in nature, but WWF does not advocate for eliminating all plastic. Material substitution may transfer the environmental costs to another part of the system, and the benefits of plastic may be lost.
Besides, not all material substitutions lead to desirable results.
A case in point is the plastic ban in the United Kingdom. The plastic bag tax has led to a 90% reduction of disposable plastic bags, which is a remarkable feat. Unfortunately, the carbon footprints of some possible replacement materials are nvery high, according to a study conducted by a UK Environment Agency. For example, a cotton tote bag would have to be reused 131 times to break even in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. A related study on alternative materials shows that a total ban on plastics in packaging could triple greenhouse gas emissions due to their higher carbon footprints.
If you’re looking for sustainable packaging solutions for your business, reach out, we can help.
Packaging, Litter and Landfills
When we discuss the issue of litter and ocean health, plastics are portrayed as the big enemy. The truth is that blindly vilifying plastics and replacing them with natural fibers will not solve the crisis. Instead, that will lead to other devastating issues as natural fibers need land to grow and therefore often compete with agricultural land or natural ecosystems.
We should look into the causes of litter before we burn plastics at the stake. The lack of social responsibility, inadequate regulations and laws, inadequate infrastructure, and the high cost of recycling treatment add to the burden. Instead of a plastic-free world, we need a plastic waste-free world, which begins with eliminating unnecessary plastic use.
Moving away from single-use packaging to reusable options may take time but is an achievable target. Another great way to reduce manufacturing burdens is to use materials with higher quantities of recycled content.
Many organizations have adopted fiber-based packaging as an alternative to plastic to help them achieve their Sustainability goals. Fiber-based packaging has a considerably lower carbon footprint than plastic because it does not rely on fossil fuel-derived products. The waste generated in the manufacturing of virgin paper and cardboard (such as wood shavings and black liquor) can be reused to supply thermal energy. This, in turn, can satisfy the energy demands of the papermaking plant. While fiber-based packaging is typically meant for single-use like plastic, it has fewer end-of-life impacts on the environment. Much of their carbon dioxide output is biogenic, so it is a matter of simply releasing the carbon previously sequestered in the raw material.
However, fiber-based materials can also lead to eutrophication, excessive water consumption, land-use, and deforestation. Millions of trees are cut down globally to supply packaging materials, including fiber-based packaging, and forests are undergoing severe degradation.
Many industries might have a greater impact on global deforestation, such as palm oil, sugar cane and unsustainable agriculture. It is valid to point out that solving the plastic waste crisis by switching to fiber-based materials is too reductive a solution on its own. Chopping down the Amazon rainforest to help you pack a sandwich for lunch simply isn’t helping the planet or its inhabitants.
That said, some companies are tackling these issues in a completely new way. They manufacture a material out of mycelium mushrooms with properties equivalent to polystyrene. The feedstock is highly renewable, can reuse agricultural waste and is not as resource-intensive as traditional fiber-based product manufacturing. The products are designed to be single-use and completely compostable. This process has great potential to help companies offset their emissions and substantially reduce their carbon footprint.
Why We Don’t Like Plastics
Plastics are harmful to our environment and, therefore, life on Earth. Experts have different views and reasons to avoid plastics entirely. Let’s have a look at the top 3 reasons:
- Plastics degrade into microplastics. Toxins adhere to the surface of these microplastics that contaminate entire ecosystems. They end up in the food we eat, species we try to protect and even the geological record.
- Plastic consumption supports the demand for the Oil & Gas industry. It has been the leading driver for dangerous change in the planet’s climates as well as atmospheric and oceanic circulation.
- Plastic recycling is ill-managed. In 2018, only 32.5% of European Union plastic, for example, was sent for recycling. Nineteen percent of this was sent to be recycled outside of the EU. The majority falls under the single-use category sent either to be incinerated with an energy recovery aim or to a landfill. The actual amount of plastic that gets recycled may also be overestimated, depending on the true extent of deficits in responsible material consumption, sorting and recycling infrastructure.
Building Infrastructure for Recycling and Circular Economy
The real issue is not even plastic being an unsustainable material; it’s the scale of demand for materials in general. Companies must make drastic improvements in their packaging materials’ environmental footprint, and one way to do that is by making resource management more efficient.
Fortunately, the concept and application of a circular economy and closing the loop are becoming more prominent. A circular economy refers to a model in which economic growth does not go hand in hand with the exploitation and consumption of natural, non-renewable resources. In a circular economy, resources are kept in a circulatory system over the longest possible use phase. The materials are often used for several purposes and returned again and again in the recycling cycle. The ecological advantage of the circular economy is that it produces less waste and minimizes the extraction of fossil resources.
How Circular is Your Packaging?
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool that works together with principles of a circular economy.
With Sphera’s Circularity Toolkit, you can determine the MCI* (Material Circularity Indicator) of your packaging products based on LCA models. Sphera Product Sustainability Software, in conjunction with the Circularity Toolkit, is the only software on the market that supports both LCA and MCI calculations.
The environmental sustainability consulting company, Sphera, provides a Circularity Toolkit where you can determine the MCI* (Material Circularity Indicator) of your packaging products based on LCA models. The Sphera Product Sustainability Software, in conjunction with the Circularity Toolkit, provides support for both LCA and MCI calculations.
Consistent Waste Infrastructure
It greatly helps consumers to understand what to do with their waste packaging if there is consistent messaging from packaging manufacturers and the same options are available to everyone. This consistency is also essential in ensuring that the growing demand for recycled plastic can be met.
Another example is digital barcodes that create a digital recycling passport in plastics to enable intelligent sorting. These imperceptible barcodes are printed onto packaging without requiring any special inks or printing processes. They may be picked up by scanners at recycling plants and even a mobile app. The codes provide all the information available regarding how packaging should be handled. For example, it would explain whether the package contains food, has multiple layers of materials, is compostable or recyclable, or made of carbon black and other hard-to-recycle materials.
Influencing Consumer Behaviour
Packaging design and innovation thus play a big role in bringing about environmental sustainability. The purpose is to streamline recycling, reduce the contamination of recycling streams, and improve consumer engagement with the packaging.
Ultimately, much of the responsibility for littering rests with the consumer. That is why the importance of consumer participation in the journey toward more sustainable packaging should not be understated. It is up to the individual to ensure that packaging is disposed of responsibly. Several actions can be taken to incentivize good habits and behaviour. Many of these ties in with previously discussed points regarding packaging design and waste infrastructure.
Clear on-pack labeling and guidance on how to treat waste packaging can help consumers make the right choice when selecting disposal routes—should it go into the recycling bin or general waste?
Provide Incentives to Increase Reuse and Recycling:
Deposit-return schemes encourage people to return used packaging for reuse or recycling by charging a small additional fee on a purchase that is refunded when the packaging is returned. It is also increasingly common for coffee shops and cafés to provide discounts to customers who bring their reusable cups.
Campaign to Make Littering Socially Unacceptable:
We can change behaviour and adjust social norms through societal pressure. Drunk driving used to be commonplace, but with effort and consistent campaigning, it is now no longer tolerated. If littering is seen to be shameful and litterers shunned, maybe it would be socially unacceptable soon.
Emerging technologies that allow consumers instant access to knowledge on how to use and dispose of the packaging at home are essential. It will help them take ownership of their purchasing habits, which is fundamental for making any initiative sustainable without intensive micromanagement. It could lead to cultural shifts that could, in turn, increase consumer responsibility and purchasing power.
How to Drive Change in Sustainable Packaging
Country-specific regulations tighten the corset around packaging producers, designers and users. But what sounds like a threat for the market is actually a chance to change our approach to packaging—how we design, use and dispose of it. It is a chance to rethink our packaging choices, the materials we use, how much we use, and even if we need it at all. The process of rethinking and redesigning will help support us in our inevitable movement toward a truly circular economy and lower our consumption of virgin resources.
Innovative and (self-declared) sustainable packaging solutions have sprung up in recent years. They encompass a range of focal points, from reusable and refillable packages via entirely new materials all the way to plastic-free aisles and packaging-free stores. But we believe success hinges on more than that. The US Company Arka, works with brands to deliver end-to-end sustainable packaging solutions. Their packaging material is all FSC certified ensuring that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.
While all these efforts are commenable, they will not achieve the set targets without a systematic and interdisciplinary approach. Using more recycled materials might be part of the solution, but it doesn’t negate the fact that plastic is derived from a finite fossil fuel resource. Banning single-use plastic might be part of the solution, but will it help prevent the plastic waste problem in the countries that contribute the most, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh?
Switching to more renewable materials might be part of the solution, but do we have enough (land) resources to enable a complete switch, and is it even technically feasible? Or might this lead to burden-shifting: killing fewer turtles but increasing deforestation and killing more orangutans instead? Can we dispense with consumer packaging without generating even more food waste? Can we create refillable packaging without significantly increasing water and energy consumption? All these questions lead to one conclusion: isolated actions can’t solve our problems—they may only temporarily delay our challenges or even make them worse.
That is why it is critical to conduct analyses during the design and production phases of packaging products. Our decisions have to be fact-based rather than emotion-based. To make sure that this happens, we need to take a holistic, interdisciplinary approach. One method, which helps you to make fact-based decisions, is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). While not all-encompassing, it enables a multi-faceted approach and helps you and your supply chain to avoid burden shifting.
If you’re looking for sustainable packaging solutions for your business, reach out, we can help.
Mintel – The world’s leading Market Intelligence agency has produced a report on Global packaging trends, with the following insightful information:
Six Factors Affecting the Move to Sustainable Packaging
1. Environmental Factors:
Climate change is the defining global threat today, with consequences that are fueling environmental degradation, natural disasters, weather extremes, food and water insecurity, economic disruption, conflict and terrorism. While as many as 70% of global consumers are convinced there is still time to save the planet, more than 50% of consumers say responsibility for doing so falls on manufacturers and governments rather than on themselves. As these issues are increasingly put in front of consumers, brands must provide climate-friendly consumption choices, and manufacturers must provide packaging alternatives, both of which are easy to understand and actionable for consumers. These decisions will increasingly be made based not on individual sustainability comparisons, but on the larger impact of carbon and how consumers can reduce the total carbon footprint of their lifestyles and purchasing decisions.
Source: Mintel Sustainability Study.
What Environmental Factors mean for packaging:
a. Recycling is crucial. Despite global recycling systems being broken, recycling remains the most understood and actionable (if not effective) means for consumers around the world to do something they believe to be better for the environment.b. Explain actions and results. There is no excuse for a lack of transparency—especially third-party validated transparency—and no substitute for it.
2. Political Factors:
The conflict in Ukraine continues to negatively affect trade and international relationships. Meanwhile, OPEC’s stranglehold on crude oil production is putting a pinch on consumers’ purchasing power. Instability among major governments’ leadership and the potentially worrisome November 2024 US Presidential Election cast a long shadow over the global political picture. The threat of a global recession looms large.While the global COVID-19 pandemic is easing in much of the world, the extreme political polarization it created, including quarantine and vaccine mandates, has created divisions among consumers that will linger.
What Political factors mean for packaging:
a. We must prepare for an increase in regulations. From nudging consumers into better consumption habits to increasing collections of recyclable packaging, legislators are looking to harness the power of legislation to affect social and environmental change.Consumers will grow weary of the additional inconvenience and/or cost associated with initiatives such as deposit schemes. This means package manufacturers, brands and retailers must invest in technologies, processes and systems that show greater value without passing along costs to consumers. At the same time, maintaining or increasing the levels of convenience associated with recycling and end-of-life packaging schemes.Brands and package manufacturers must get ahead of legislation! Legislators are increasingly confident in using legislation to drive environmental change and nudge consumers towards healthy consumption behaviours. However, brands and package manufacturers must get ahead of this legislation.Prepare for deposit systems/ Governments are looking to deposit return schemes (DRS)— which add cost at the point of sale—to increase the quantity of used packaging returned for recycling. For example, Finland claims that more than 90% of bottles and cans purchased in the country in 2020 were returned for recycling.
Source: Pekka Sakki/Lehtikuva via finland.fib. Invest in recycling infrastructure. Mirroring consumer concern over plastic pollution, legislators are looking to ensure plastic waste is kept and recycled domestically. For example, in the UK, Members of Parliament have called for a complete ban on the export of plastic waste by 2027.
3. Economic Factors:
The global economy is in flux. Supply chain issues linger, labour shortages persist and inflation is rising. This economic uncertainty and the associated rising cost of goods have forced consumers to rethink budgets and discretionary spending, creating the need for more value-based options. Combining the economics of product and packaging. Across categories, brands are tapping messaging, technology and retail strategies to show consumers how packaging can stretch a budget.
4. Social Factors:
Consumers are less trusting—of companies, governments and institutions—than ever before, and are less likely than ever to take brands at their word when they say they’re doing the right thing. With growing concerns about a range of issues, from food availability and ethical sourcing to equitable pay and responsible use of water and land, consumers want to know more about the products they buy and the brands they’re buying from. In addition to spotlighting their achievements and strengths, brands and package manufacturers have to be more transparent about their weaknesses and how they plan to address them. Consumers are pursuing transparency through clearer labelling and, specifically, what labelling claims mean for the greater good. Packaging becomes the messenger for socially responsible initiatives and actions. Whether targeting environmental, social or human conditions, brands are tapping on-pack messaging to communicate their ethos toward social responsibility. Recognize the individual $1USD from every purchased bag of Kribi Coffee’s Black Lives Matter Blend is donated to Tutoring Chicago, an organization with the mission of empowering economically disadvantaged students through education. Protect health and immunity. The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new urgency to healthy eating and supporting the immune system. In the US, SmartLabel is a platform where shoppers can look up thousands of products to learn information that can’t fit on a package, including ingredient definitions and safe handling instructions.
What Social Factors mean for packaging.
a. Be transparent! It’s time to stop making commitments to change ‘at some point’ in the future. Brands and packaging manufacturers must provide clarity about the responsible actions that are being will be taken and the benefits they deliver. Be honest and transparent about the challenges and obstacles when delivering the ‘perfect’ package.b. Take a stand! Packaging paints a picture of a brand’s equity, which increasingly includes social and environmental capital. Consumers want to hear what retailers, brands and package manufacturers have to say on controversial topics related to diversity, inclusion and equity.
5. Technological Factors:
Consumers are becoming fatigued as a result of the fast pace of daily life, increased use of technology and having to move from crisis to crisis. The rapid advance of technology is leaving some consumers unconvinced of its actual benefit— specifically the Metaverse, NFTs and cryptocurrency—which can make them feel disengaged. On the other hand, driven by curiosity, excitement and a desire to be informed and entertained, many consumers are spending increased amounts of time on the internet. Whether it involves developing their personal brand, entrepreneurial projects, socializing or gaining a better understanding of environmental issues, consumer expectations are creating a demand for increased immersion. Digital experiences are rapidly expanding to include social media, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Metaverse, especially as a means of content consumption and entertainment.Packaging technologies enable and support more intelligent, informed and convenient use occasions. Brands and package manufacturers are marrying materials, components and digitally-enhanced technologies to create next-generation purchase and use experiences. Optimized for social media US plant based snack brand Harvest Snaps used an on-pack QR code on its Baked Green Peas Snack to engage younger consumers by enabling them to create their own snack-inspired music directly through TikTok.
What Technology Factors mean for packaging:
a. Focus on functionality. The high occurrence of QR codes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has lowered the usage barrier of this technology. However, avoid the temptation to dazzle with interactivity that delivers nothing beyond a gimmick. Consider how smart packaging can add value by providing the right information/support at the right moment.b. Align with the influencers. As consumers increasingly shop online and directly through social media, consider how packaging design can appeal to the influencer. Be agile enough to respond to viral memes and trends, getting limited edition pack designs and functionalities to market before the consumer moves on to something.
6. Legal Factors:
A myriad of national, federal and local laws have been enacted to protect consumers from unfair, deceptive or fraudulent business practices. In recent years, more rules and restrictions have been created to protect the health and safety of consumers, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, new rules around the use of plastics and materials that contribute to pollution, as well as human and planetary health, will affect consumers. Across the United States, for example, plastic bag, extended producer responsibility (EPR) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) laws are being enacted and enforced.Key regulatory issues affecting businesses and consumers include: health and safety, workplace safety, cybersecurity, paid leave, retirement, tax changes, healthcare reform, pay\ equity, worker classification, and employee privacy.
What Legal Factors mean for packaging:
a. A firm grip on current legislation, its origins and what’s in the crosshairs of legislators, particularly around plastics, PFAS, and EPR, will enable brands
and package manufacturers to get one step ahead and not be caught off guard.
b. Expect more of the same! No doubt consumers will rally behind legislation that, on the surface, appears to benefit the environment. Consumer support will spur additional bans which will put significant cost pressures on manufacturers in their quest to meet mandates and find suitable, though more costly, alternatives.
Source: Mintel, 2023 Global Packaging Trends Report
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