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In the Loop

A skeptic's hope for packaging

Key takeaways from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition's annual Impact conference.

Paul Nowak (executive director at GreenBlue) and Allison Lin (global vice president of packaging sustainability at Mars) on the main stage at SPC Impact.

Paul Nowak (executive director at GreenBlue) and Allison Lin (global vice president of packaging sustainability at Mars) on the main stage at SPC Impact. Credit: GreenBlue/SPC

Last week I made my annual trip to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) Impact conference in Austin, Texas. I continue to be skeptical of anything that combines "packaging" and "sustainability" because of all of packaging’s detrimental effects on the environment to date. That said, I did walk away from this year’s conference with a newfound hope for the future. Here are three reasons for that hope.  

1. Policy

Packaging policy is not new. Parts of Europe, for example, have had extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws on the books as far back as 1991, and those laws have expanded globally quite quickly since then. For a fun historical overview of EPR, check out this site from Multi-Material Stewardship Western, an NGO out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Two things have changed over the last few years, though, that I think are noteworthy.

First, individual states here in the U.S. have started to take up their own EPR regulations. So far Maine, Oregon, Colorado and California have passed laws, and EPR has been debated in several other state legislatures in the past year. This state-by-state regulatory approach is not ideal, but it is a start. As more states pass these laws, more companies will get comfortable with meeting them and will (eventually) be incentivized to innovate their packaging to avoid paying the associated fees. 

Second, companies seem both more educated and more comfortable with EPR. I had the pleasure of moderating a session about the concept at this year’s conference and was pleasantly surprised by the attendance. The room was full of folks from all corners of the packaging industry, and the quality of questions from the audience was excellent. In fact, the questions were so good that I was able to sit back and just do my best to field the most relevant of them. Between last year’s SPC Impact to this year, I have noticed a shift in the discussion from skepticism about EPR from questioning the validity of the premise toward queries about implementation and innovation.

2. Reuse

I love packaging reuse programs. When they work well and provide a good experience for people, they can be very effective at reducing environmental impact. According to both the Reusable Packaging Association and Upstream Solutions, reusable packaging can lead to less solid waste, lower CO2 emissions, lower water consumption and even lower product waste and spoilage. What I often hear, though, is that consumers aren’t ready for reuse and they value the convenience of throw-away culture too much to switch. I do agree this is definitely the case in some situations. For example, when reuse is offered as a small pilot program or fringe add-on, it tends to be met with resistance even by those who are generally supportive.

SPC Impact hosted several conversations with reuse innovators in a variety of sectors that are finding willing participants for their programs.

One way reuse is starting to take hold is in controlled environments. We see the success of r.cup and Turn offering reusable cups for beverages at event venues and gatherings as one piece of evidence. In these settings, both organizations report return rates of near 90 percent.

Another success story from SPC Impact is Friendlier. This Canadian company specializes in on-the-go meal packaging solutions. Its polypropylene containers come in a variety of sizes and formats, and the company offers an app-based return program allowing users to seamlessly get their deposit back. Another important detail: The containers come with lids and bases that are not attached to each other. This way, if one component is damaged, the other can still be used. Maybe my favorite part of this program, though? Users can choose to build up their deposits in an account and donate it to a charity of their choice. Brilliant.    

3. People

I mentioned that I’m generally skeptical of packaging and the often dubious claims of sustainability that go along with it. Honestly, it is just difficult to imagine that such a commodity item can get to the circular and sustainable endpoint that we crave. You know what, though? I’m starting to think the group of people working to make packaging better for people and the environment may just be committed enough to make it happen. 

A packaging conference draws in all the biggest nerds in this space. I myself am not a packaging nerd, despite being a nerd of many colors; a chemistry nerd, a circular economy nerd and a (mostly Minnesota) sports nerd. But I digress. 

The sustainable packaging nerds that I’ve met are VERY committed to their work. They dive headfirst in material innovation research, they listen to packaging podcasts, they have side conversations about the need to update home composting test standards and they fill rooms to discuss EPR regulations. That commitment is what gives me hope we can overcome the serious challenges we have in packaging sustainability.   

In summary, I learned a lot at SPC Impact 2023 — just like I did last year, I walked away feeling better about the future of packaging than I did walking in, and I met some great people doing some amazing work. Do we still need to move faster? Absolutely! I do think we can do it now, though, and that feels like progress to this skeptic.

Correction: When this article was originally posted, Washington was listed in the states with EPR laws. In fact, Washington passed a plastics law in 2021, but it is not an EPR law.

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