The strongest trends in the packaging industry all revolve around a circular economy. Why? At least in the European Union, these trends are driven primarily by political pressure and consumer perception regarding packaging. China (and now Thailand) are closing their doors to waste, environmental groups are lobbying to stop plastic pollution in the oceans and the EU continues to strengthen its resource self-reliance. Given the current supply chain crisis, this goal is now more important than ever.
These developments are at the heart of the EU’s decision to embrace a circular economy. Its simple code relies on the same three words that defined the environmental movement in the ’80s and ’90s: reduce, reuse, recycle. EU regulations aim to increase recycling rates and recycled content as well as reduce single-use plastics.
As a result, manufacturers are rushing to reach their own quotas and targets, scrambling to solve a puzzle where the edges are still ill-defined. Similar developments are taking place in the U.S.
In California, SB 54, the Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act, establishes a producer responsibility model intended to place the burden of recycling on those who manufacture and sell plastic packaging and products. The law requires producers to join a Producer Responsibility Organization. SB 54 sets targets for recycling plastic packaging of not less than 30% by 2028, 40% by 2030 and 65% by 2032.
Here we provide our views on current sustainable packaging trends to draw attention to the potential shortcomings of each and offer suggestions for tackling them.
1. Design for Recycling
More recycling is, of course, a great development. The question is how to enable a net positive effect on the environment and the economy. In order to be recycled, post-consumer packaging has to fulfill a long list of requirements (e.g., separability, cleanliness, labelling and coloration). Manufacturers trying to fulfill those requirements may have to use more materials and energy when they produce the packaging than they have done up until now.
Additionally, just because a packaging product is designed for recycling today does not automatically mean that it will be recycled. And even if it is recycled, the environmental footprint may not be improved. Most recycling technologies currently require a lot of energy, and the quality of the recovered material is lower than virgin material. Therefore, the designed packaging often has a less-than-desirable net impact on the environment. And this doesn’t even include the effects of having less feedstock for incinerators to recover energy from.
Designing for recycling is certainly imperative to future-proof businesses, our economy and humanity itself. But first we need to ensure recyclability leads to recycling, preferably in a closed-loop system.
Our suggestion: Make your recyclable designs comprehensive by keeping the recycling infrastructure in mind. Regulators should match recycling quotas (e.g., EU recycling rate of 75% of packaging waste by 2030) to regional capacities and plan the expansion of the recycling streams in coordination with those quotas.
Our Circular Recycling Challenge
While recyclers are springing up all over the place with new technologies, the key issues to solve are volume and quality. We are a long way from where we need to be. The volume problem has negatively impacted Southeast Asian countries. Malaysia, for example, accepts high volumes of waste for recycling. Superfluous waste is disposed of in endless landfills where part of it ends up as ocean plastic, or it’s burned (illegally) in the open air, releasing noxious fumes over local settlements.
While there is a large volume of waste produced, recycling infrastructure remains very selective of the kind of waste it accepts. Recycling technologies that have moved beyond the testing phase can only work with waste that fulfills a long list of criteria (sortability, cleanliness, labeling, coloration, etc.).
So why do products designed for recycling still fail to be recycled? The simple answer is because the infrastructure does not yet exist to handle the volume we produce, so our recyclable waste is exported to Southeast Asia. On the other hand, infrastructure will only expand to handle the large volume if there are sufficient volumes of high-quality waste that can be recycled (e.g., sortability, etc.). Therefore, our recycling challenge is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem. This is where legislation can break the deadlock. The current legislation in and influenced by the EU, however, has only taken care of one end of the value chain—recyclability.
While aluminum recycling businesses are usually very profitable, this is unfortunately not true for plastic recycling. Unless plastic recycling itself is incentivized, the mismatch will continue to result in detrimental environmental outcomes.
2. Design for Reuse
Reuse is more difficult to envision than recycling given our current mindset. It requires us to move away from the way we currently handle packaging—tearing it open and throwing it away or recycling it. It may also necessitate more robust packaging materials that need to withstand washing and sterilization. It also needs to have a well-built infrastructure to collect, wash, sterilize, refill and return the packaging to consumers. It’s the milkman method but adapted for today’s world.
There have been various small-scale attempts in the past. Since its introduction at the World Economic Forum in January 2019, the Loop Initiative has made headlines for major brands in the cosmetics, and personal care industries, as well as the food and retail industries. The idea of Loop is to bring back the old “milkman model,” where products are delivered to your door at the same time empties are picked up, washed, refilled and readied for delivery to another customer.
While we anticipate these projections to come true, we also feel obliged to report the risks. As with recycling, the risk for reuse is higher if the heavier, bulkier materials designed for reuse have a worse environmental impact than their reuse compensates for. In other words, we should never examine packaging impacts in isolation, but comprehensively, with a systems-thinking approach.
A recent screening study highlighted that a current version of a reusable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bag carries a much higher impact than its single-use alternative. So much so that you would need to use the reusable bag at least 50 times to make it more sustainable. Manufacturers should ensure that reuse is realistic in the actual customer setting and that the behavior actually compensates for any added impact in the material design changes. Manufacturers also need to calculate the additional impact of transporting, washing, sanitizing (possibly even tracking) and refilling those reusable containers.
Our suggestion: Increasing reuse is a must-win battle for optimizing resources and drastically reducing waste. However, companies need to use eco-design and life cycle thinking (systems thinking) and push for infrastructure of scale with a massive customer base to make the transition truly environmentally sound.
3. Replace Plastics with Bioplastics
Another trend on the rise is the increased use of bioplastics to replace fossil-fuel-based plastics. People tend to believe that bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable, but they are not necessarily either of those. While bioplastics are certainly interesting substitutes (identical in many of their physical and technical properties to their fossil-based counterparts), using them might only shift the environmental burden by reducing the carbon footprint while increasing acidification, the water footprint or other environmental impacts. We also have to keep in mind that introducing bioplastics may only alleviate the plastic problem, not solve it. An ingested bioplastic bag may still choke whales and other marine life.
Beyond burden-shifting, we also have a supply issue. How can we grow enough raw materials required to replace fossil fuel packaging products with bioplastics? The only way is to increase the agricultural production of sugar cane or other feedstock. But agricultural production is already pressed to its limits and straining land areas that compete with food production. Deforestation to prepare the way for more agricultural land is certainly not a sustainable solution. And even with bioplastics, we won’t solve the general problem of end-of-life waste streams.
Our suggestion: Invest in research and development (R&D) but try to avoid competing with agricultural production. Only use superfluous biomass waste that has no other application. Use eco-design and think about the product’s end-of-life to avoid shifting the environmental burden to another area.
4. Replace Plastics with Paper
Paper is even more frequently suggested as a substitute for plastic packaging than bioplastics (for example, paper cups and bags). However, currently available data suggests that paper packaging generally requires several times more mass to fulfill the same function as its plastic counterpart. As a result, the overall environmental impact tends to be higher for paper, except in its carbon footprint. So again, this is a case of burden shifting: reducing the carbon footprint but increasing impacts such as acidification and eutrophication. Additionally, replacing plastic with paper could likely give us a serious supply problem.
If we were to replace all plastics with paper, we must either cut down more forests or find areas for reforestation. The latter would be a double benefit, of course, but do we actually have the space? Current data suggests that we still have a net loss of forests worldwide and that we are more likely to lose possible reforestation areas to other pressing needs, such as the expansion of cities and towns, agriculture and industry.
Furthermore, paper and cardboard recycling facilities are already running at top capacity and would need to expand their operations to take in more recyclable waste. And at the moment, recycled paper does not seem to significantly decrease the total environmental impact of paper, at least not based on the data we have available today.
Our suggestion: Watch for new developments in the paper market, especially if weight can be reduced. Be aware of the risk of burden-shifting—always think systemically and holistically.
5. Reduce and Remove Packaging
Reducing and ultimately removing packaging from products, such as from bulk food items, is a lucrative way of minimizing the materials in circulation and ultimately the environmental impact of packaging. However, as was so beautifully demonstrated with the now-famous example of the shrink-wrapped cucumber, we should not exclude the purpose of packaging when we assess its environmental impact. If the packaging fails to fulfill its primary purpose of safeguarding the product’s quality, the product may go to waste, and the environmental impact of a wasted product is, in general, far higher than that of the avoided packaging material.
Our suggestion: Keep working to reduce packaging material within the limits allowed by its purpose. And if, as with some initiatives, you start a new product line with reduced packaging and therefore reduce product shelf life, communicate it to customers and continue to help them understand the reasoning behind the changes to make sure that the net benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Life cycle thinking, as always, helps.
6. Shift to Mono-Materials
Laminates and composite packaging from multiple materials constitute one of the biggest hurdles to achieving recyclability (not recycling itself, for which the biggest problem is collection and infrastructure). Manufacturers have made considerable efforts to shift to mono-material packaging (laminates included). The risk here is that mono-material solutions can end up heavier and bulkier than their composite alternatives and may need other additives. The reason is simple: Companies use aluminum layers in laminates because of their insulative properties that—when replaced by plastics or paper—require thicker layers and, ultimately, also more mass.
Our suggestion: Analyze alternatives carefully and quantitatively to ensure that for the same packaging quality, the mono-material alternative does not, in fact, increase overall environmental impacts or shift burdens from one environmental impact to another.
7. Increase Recycled Content
The United Kingdom announced a plastic tax in 2018. The new regulation came into force in April 2022. Plastic packaging components containing 30% or more recycled plastic are not chargeable for tax. It’s commendable that industries are not only focusing on producing recyclable materials, but also ensuring that manufacturers can use the recycled materials for the same application that those materials were derived from. Only then will the manufacturer actualize the true meaning of circularity. But achieving a set target of at least 30% recycled content by 2030 is not as simple as exchanging one supplier with another.
First and foremost, recycled content in packaging affects the quality of the packaging and might require an increase in the overall weight or an extra layer of protection. Secondly, the recycling of plastics is currently limited to about five cycles before the recyclates lose the material properties the industry relies on them for. Obviously, this imposes a supply limitation, which is compounded by the lack of local recycling infrastructure.
And we should not forget that recycling carries its own environmental burdens because of the energy and materials required for the process. Overall, the environmental impact may or may not improve with the 30% target, but companies wanting to achieve this target may have to reckon with supply risks.
Our suggestion: Gradually and collaboratively support the growth of local recycling infrastructure and continue to include chemical recycling as an option. For the latter, political lobbying may be needed to redefine governmental regulations on what counts as recycling.
8. New Out-of-the-Box Ideas
What we haven’t touched on until now are new, out-of-the-box packaging ideas. There are a lot of innovative ideas out there, such as changing the form of packaging, completely enhancing stackability or the ability to empty the packaging completely, etc. In order to achieve success with outside-the-box thinking, you need not only brain power but also courage and investment. Innovation is hard but more rewarding.
Our suggestion: Take the opportunity to reinvent packaging, and don’t be afraid to make alliances with suppliers as well as the competition. Innovation is imperative to a sustainable future.
9. Customer Is Key
While the customer is part of the change process in many of the above-mentioned initiatives, we want to emphasize this as a separate trend. Brands communicating and educating their customers on how to responsibly use and dispose of packaging is key to success in all areas. This positive development is luckily on the rise. The only danger is if we move toward oversimplified (and eventually incorrect) qualitative descriptions designed to enable all customers to decipher the message, but actually mislead the public.
Our suggestion: Ensure that the environmentally solid ideals are communicated appropriately for different levels of customer curiosity. Today we have the technology to add a tiny QR code to a label and link more details that could be too much for most customers but satisfy the curiosity of others. Focus not only on engaging unresponsive or environmentally disinterested customers, but also on shaping the opinions of those who may have been misled by deceptive sustainability claims without scientific basis (e.g., the claim that “no packaging is the best packaging.”)
Developing Sustainable Packaging
Courageous, out-of-the-box thinking, understanding your whole supply chain and proper R&D are critical to the development of sustainable packaging. But the question will arise as to how you create a more sustainable solution if at the same time the recycling quotas force you to do the opposite. How can you, as a manufacturer, go against regulatory pressure and potentially risk pushback from customers to carry out the more sustainable option?
When politicians create laws that are poorly thought through, it slows the evolution toward more sustainable packaging. In addition to regulated recycling rates, we need compulsory life cycle assessment. Without such regulatory instruments, we run the risk of making the wrong decisions that will only shift the burden, delaying the time when industries will again have to deal with the problem comprehensively.
Furthermore, politicians and governments need to look beyond their borders to ensure that waste trade is managed in a globally responsible manner. This should include supporting the expansion of waste management infrastructure in countries that import our waste while simultaneously clamping down on the black market of waste causing illicit landfills and spillage into the oceans.
And don’t forget to focus your communication strategy on the net benefits across the diverse environmental impacts and with respect to the function of the packaging. We need customers to be on board with the chosen strategy.
This article has been updated from a previous version published in 2020 to reflect new regulatory updates and industry news.