For companies with sustainable packaging goals, 2025 is fast approaching. That’s the year when many have pledged to become zero waste, or to use 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging. But COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in those plans, with single-use packaging skyrocketing, low fossil fuel prices and disrupted recycling systems, already weakened by China’s 2018 plastics waste ban.
Yet, at the same time, the pandemic has led to a surge in environmental and sustainability awareness by showing how much carbon emissions can drop, or wildlife can flourish, when the world’s economic engine slows down.
As TerraCycle founder and CEO, Tom Szaky, put it, "The world is waking up, but the systems that are there that allow them to act are going the other way. There’s this divergence, which is a great opportunity for anyone who can bridge the gap."
Bridging that gap with novel solutions and collaborations, in a race against the clock, is one of five key themes to keep an eye on for sustainable packaging in 2021.
1. A year for reckoning — and opportunity
In September, Waste Management published a report identifying gaps in the plastics recycling system, in response to shareholder pressure from As You Sow and Trillium Asset Management. The report provided a bit of a roadmap for 2021, according to Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and executive director of GreenBlue. It was critical for helping stakeholders understand the system, the supply chain, and the role that emerging tech will play, and it "provided the environment for everyone to buckle down and say, ‘Uh-oh, how are we going to do this?’" she said. That is, how will stakeholders meet their recycling goals?
Noting, for example, that the report revealed that only 30 percent of PET is collected, and most of that goes into fiber, Goodrich queried, "How does one create a system where there’s 100 percent recycled content and recyclability when you have more than one market demanding that material?" Clearly, stakeholders will have to get out of their silos and collaborate across sectors.
Although it’s a challenging time, with companies’ 2025 sustainable packaging goals coming due and the recycling market in disarray, Szaky said he believes that 2021 will be an interesting year: "We’re going to see a lot of people leaning in on these topics in a way they haven’t before."
For Loop, the reusable packaging platform that allows consumers to buy goods in durable packaging and return it to producers after use, that means opportunity. "It’s a pretty exciting time for us," Szaky told GreenBiz. "We’re booming."
2. Reuse models will continue to grow
Loop is fast growing, raising $25 million last year. It’s moving into quick service restaurants including Burger King, McDonald’s and Tim Hortons in 2021. "The big theme for next year is retailers are starting to do in-store quite aggressively," said Szaky. Carrefour already has begun in France. Many of the other 15 retailers that Loop works with are starting store rollouts in six countries in 2021, according to Szaky.
Loop isn’t the only reusable packaging platform seeing strong growth. Algramo expanded into New York City last summer.
Plenty of new reuse pilots are springing up, such as Good Goods, a New York City startup that incentivizes customers to return their wine bottles to the point of sale, or the dozens of other projects summarized in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, "Reuse — Rethinking Packaging."
In fact, experimentation is the name of the game with reuse models, according to Kate Daly, managing director at Closed Loop Partners.
"We’re very much in an age of experimentation, and need to continually interrogate what are the unintended consequences when you switch from one system to another," said Daly. "We really want to make sure that sustainable choices like reusable packaging aren’t just limited for people who can pay extra for their goods." Also key is ensuring that reusables get the longest life and largest recapture rate, and that they’re recyclable and recoverable at the end of their life.
To foster learning about what works and doesn’t work, Closed Loop Partners will release a report this month on its 2020 pilot initiative with Cup Club and Muuse, NextGen Cup Challenge awardees, and its experience marketing reusable cups across multiple cafes in the Bay Area.
3. Compostable packaging finds a niche with food waste
Biopolymers and compostable materials are quickly becoming an alternative to disposable packaging, but there’s a confusing array of materials being developed. Some bio-based materials such as bio-PET are derived from biological materials, but are not biodegradable. Meanwhile, other bio-based materials such as PLA, (polylactic acid), a natural polymer made from corn starch or sugar cane, is biodegradable, although not in the way a consumer might assume it to be.
To help brands and others understand the fast-evolving landscape of bio-based materials, Closed Loop Partner’s released "Navigating Plastic Alternatives in a Circular Economy."
We’re very much in an age of experimentation, and need to continually interrogate what are the unintended consequences when you switch from one system to another.
Among its conclusions, the report finds that compostable alternatives are not a silver-bullet solution, in part because there is not enough recovery infrastructure to recapture their full value efficiently. Plus, among the 185 commercial composting facilities that exist, many don’t accept compostable-certified packaging.
"We have to rethink where composting is appropriate and where it isn’t. It is a really good solution where you have food waste," Goodrich said.
Daly agrees: "What we wouldn’t want to see is any format that is being successfully recycled being converted to a compostable format when there isn’t the infrastructure possible. That would create a misalignment between the material and infrastructure that would exacerbate the challenges already in place today."
4. Extended producer responsibility takes off
Last month, the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) and Product Stewardship Association (PSI) released a joint statement calling for extended producer responsibility at the end of life for flexible packaging and paper. The statement lays out eight policy elements that could go into legislation, including a mechanism for producer funding for collection, transportation and processing of packaging, among other critical funding needs for municipal recycling facilities.
"With this agreement, FPA member companies and PSI member governments, companies, and organizations have started down a path together to provide desperately needed fiscal relief for municipalities while fixing and expanding our national reuse and recycling system," said Scott Cassel, PSI’s chief executive officer and founder, in a press release.
Goodrich called it "groundbreaking."
Remarkably, FPA wasn’t the only industry association to step up on extended producer responsibility. The Recycling Partnership released "Accelerating Recycling," a policy proposal outlining fees that brands and packaging producers would pay that would help fund residential recycling infrastructure and education. A proposed per-ton disposal fee could be required at landfills, incinerators and waste-to-energy plants, with the revenue going to local governments for recycling programs. The American Chemistry Council also came out with a position paper supporting packaging fees across multiple material types, in addition to disposal fees to equalize the costs of disposal versus recycling.
"Two years ago, you couldn’t even mention this, and now you have a series of industry proposals being put on the table. That is incredibly significant," said Goodrich.
5. Rising action to eliminate toxics from food packaging
Amazon was the latest among more than half a dozen major food retailers — from Whole Foods to Trader Joe’s to Ahold Delhaize — to announce a ban on certain toxic chemicals and plastics in food packaging materials. The new restrictions apply to Amazon Kitchen brand products sold through the tech giant’s various grocery services, but not to other private-label or Amazon brand-name food contact materials, such as single-use plates.
Still, it’s a good start. And Amazon’s actions "send a strong signal to competing grocery store chains that they need to get their act together, and also tackle some of the same chemicals of concern that scientists are sounding the alarm on," Mike Schade, campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, Mind the Store, told GreenBiz.
We really see a sense of urgency around these issues, as plastic production continues, as more and more materials are lost to landfill that we’re not able to recapture as a valuable resource.
Schade has seen rising attention over the past few years on the part of both food retailers and fast casual restaurants, such as Sweet Green, towards not only banning specific chemicals, but also restricting classes of chemicals.
Getting toxics out of packaging, in flexible films in particular, was also on the agenda at a 2020 RCD Packaging Innovation workshop that brought together 80 representatives from consumer brands, waste managers and the plastics industry over a nine-month period.
Such attention on toxics is critical, as a comprehensive report on the health impacts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in packaging and other plastics materials underscored last month. Bisphenol A, phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and dioxins are among the chemicals that disturb the body’s hormone systems, and can cause cancer, diabetes and reproductive disorders, and harm children’s developing brains.
Expect more food retailers and fast casual restaurants to ban or restrict endocrine-disrupting chemicals from their packaging. But, as Schade point out, those chemicals are just the "tip of the toxic iceberg." Much more work is needed to get to the larger universe of chemicals.
More work is needed all around in 2021 to advance a circular economy. "We really see a sense of urgency around these issues, as plastic production continues, as more and more materials are lost to landfill that we’re not able to recapture as a valuable resource," said Daly. "And the approaches must be collaborative and systemic. None of us can do this alone."
Editor's note: This story was updated Jan. 7 to add a vendor name that was left out of the original.