This article is sponsored by Pure Strategies.
Sustainable packaging is a keystone issue for corporate sustainability. As one of the first environmental concerns companies began to tackle proactively, interest and efforts had notable resurgence in the last few years, partly spurred by the attention on ocean plastic.
Then the pandemic hit, and the market changed — characterized by higher demand for single-use packages and bags, and lower availability of recycled materials.
When we look ahead, are we on the path to a circular and sustainable system for packaging?
From paper vs. plastic to reusable vs. single use
Shopping bags have long been a focus in sustainability — from looking at greenhouse gas impacts (paper is higher) to litter (plastic has more challenges) and significant policy action. A shift away from a focus on single-use design emerged. Studies pointed out that bags that are effectively reused can be the best environmental option.
Food service and consumer goods companies also were exploring this shift to durable packages for reuse. Over one-third of the participating product and packaging companies reported to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment that they are testing such options. While the pandemic impacted momentum for reusables in shopping bags and food services (for various reasons), it did not stop the growth of these solutions for consumer goods.
Studies pointed out that bags that are effectively reused can be the best environmental option.
Helping blaze the trail is TerraCycle’s Loop program. Consumer brands partner with Loop to offer products in a durable package that when empty, get collected in various channels, cleaned and sanitized by Loop, and then refilled by the manufacturer for another use. Such commercially cleaned reusable packages or consumer refillable packages are poised for growth, given their two-pronged benefits of hygiene and sustainability.
Recycling takes center stage
Reusable solutions are one path of a circular economy, but there is far more effort to advance another circular approach, recycling. Companies have more goals for designing for recycling and recovery, and increasing recycled content than other packaging issues.
Designing recyclable packages begins with using recyclable materials. Colgate-Palmolive redesigned its toothpaste tube to be made of high density polyethylene (HDPE), instead of the traditional mix of plastics and metal that is not recyclable. Another design strategy is to avoid mixing materials. Paper cups usually have unrecyclable plastic coatings. Smart Planet Technologies developed a recyclable cup solution, and collaborative efforts such as the NextGen Cup Challenge likely will spur additional advances.
Designing for recyclability, however, is not the silver bullet. Used packages need to be recycled. Recycling rates generally have been on the rise in the United States, adding up to about 50 percent of packaging and containers being recycled. However, that is largely comprised of paper and cardboard (75 percent of recycled packages). Only about 13 percent of plastic packages are recovered in the U.S. Adding to this, the pandemic led to a decrease in recycling.
Companies are improving consumer communication about recycling, such as using the How2Recycle label. There is also investment in developing recycling infrastructure and collaborating on solutions for harder to recycle items — such as The Recycling Partnership initiatives, the Materials Recovery for the Future initiative to increase film collection, the Hefty Energy Bag for chemical recycling, and the Closed Loop Partners funding expansion of recycling capability.
To close the recycling loop, the recovered material needs to be used. While companies have committed to using it, fossil fuels prices were declining and then tanked during the pandemic, driving virgin plastic prices well below recovered plastic. The availability of recovered materials also decreased. Undoubtedly, companies will question their plans to increase recycled content in the current market.
To close the recycling loop, recovered material needs to be used.
Companies relying on recycling as the way to effectively manage their packaging after use have a responsibility to support the end market for recovered material by continuing to use recycled content. There will be obstacles with price and availability, but they can be managed with measures such as investing in infrastructure development and design improvements (such as removing extra packaging material).
Seeing the forest for the trees
Responsible fiber sourcing goals were among the first sustainable packaging targets, with many expiring in 2020. Loblaws met its target in 2018 by sourcing recycled or certified fiber. IKEA, Procter & Gamble and most other companies are on track to meet their 2020 targets. While progress has been made, sourcing fiber responsibly is still a gap for too many companies.
The Consumer Goods Forum and others also see a need to take fiber sourcing to the next level, reaching beyond responsible sourcing for each company’s supply chain to landscape-level approaches that reach additional suppliers within a region and support infrastructure and policies to get to a "forest positive" approach.
Responsible sourcing also fits into climate strategies. With over 800 companies committed to setting science-based climate targets, impacts from packaging are being evaluated. Colgate Palmolive, General Mills and Walmart have included packaging improvement in their climate programs. In addition to sourcing, reducing packaging material use is effective. As this is a cost-savings opportunity, it has been a core approach in sustainable packaging. Since 2010, Procter & Gamble had a 13.5 percent reduction in packaging material intensity and Unilever an 18 percent reduction.
Room for innovation
Exciting sustainable packaging developments emerged from the aim to remove chemicals of concern. Coop in Denmark led the way when the retailer stopped selling microwave popcorn until it could offer its private brand product without the harmful chemicals typically used on the inside of the bag. The new bag was not only free of the chemicals of concern but also became recyclable.
There has been a growing effort across other products to remove these grease-proofing chemicals, called per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) that are used on paper-based packaging. While paper should be recyclable, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition stated that intentionally added PFAS makes a package not widely recyclable, and Norway is set to ban its use. Footprint was one of the first companies to offer fiber-based packages that are PFAS-free and certified compostable.
About 5 percent of U.S. households have access to curbside composting collection — a long way from being a widely available circularity solution. Bioplastics, while sometimes compostable, can be recyclable. In 2009, Coca-Cola launched a bottle made with 30 percent bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET). By 2015, it had a 100 percent bio-based PET bottle, as other companies are looking to do the same. Further, bio-based polyethylene (PE) is found in recyclable rigid and flexible packages.
About 5 percent of U.S. households have access to curbside composting collection.
Sustainable packaging is not yet a reality, but there has been progress with reducing packaging weight, sourcing fiber responsibly and exciting developments in material health and bio-based options. There remains a notable gap in building a circular packaging system.
Reusable options are emerging, but still niche, and closing the loop with packaging is faced with price premiums for recovered material and low recycling rates, especially for plastic packages. The launch of the New Plastics Economy Commitment in 2018 spurred over 200 businesses, including the largest companies such as Walmart, Target, Nestle and Unilever to aim for 100 percent reusable, recyclable and compostable plastic packaging by 2025.
These ambitious targets and related initiatives have brought extensive collaboration within and across industries, bringing hope for the ingredients necessary for progress: efficient and safe design, responsibly sourced materials and a circular packaging system.