Why we need out-of-the-box thinking on sustainable packaging

By Ruan Jones

The current packaging market is full of confusion and complexity around which routes to take to achieve sustainable value. Driving meaningful action at scale will require all stakeholders in the value chain – regulators, consumers, brand owners, manufacturers, converters and logistics experts – to be involved.

Currently, 79 per cent of the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste created each year ends up in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment. Only 9 per cent is recycled. With the upcoming Plastic Tax in the UK and Europe, businesses that do not conform to legislative requirements will incur enormous tax costs. All the while, local municipalities are increasingly constrained with how they deal with packaging waste such as single-use plastics, now that China and India are no longer accepting imported plastic waste for recycling. Recycling capability, rules and regulations vary by municipalities, and many times, the infrastructure just doesn’t exist.

The role of packaging in consumer goods

Packaging has a vital role to play in a wide array of industries, including consumer packaged and fast-moving goods (CPG/FMCG) such as food and beverage, home and personal care, medical, retail and others. Not only does packaging protect goods from damage, extend their shelf life, support usability, differentiate them on crowded shelves, and showcase key attributes, it also communicates usage and safety information.

When tackling sustainable packaging, manufacturers and brands need solutions which will work best for their product and supply chain as well as their business commitments, whilst making sure these conform to ever-changing legislations and align with country and municipality specific infrastructures. Forward thinking brands are embracing the opportunity of helping today’s increasingly conscious consumers make responsible choices and live more sustainably.

Packaging needs to be tackled at a value chain level

The good news is that brands are stepping up to the plate and transitioning from human-centred packaging to life-centred packaging. Organisations are committing to net-zero waste, water and carbon goals. Hitting these will require disruptive innovation and previously unseen collaboration across raw material suppliers, packaging manufacturers and logistics companies, brands, and even charities and civil society. Getting this right will not be easy; there is no single answer for all and leaders must balance the trade-offs between cost, performance, usability and the broader sustainability implications.

There are also additional questions that open up a new realm of possibility. For example, while we are challenged to find alternatives to single-use plastics that feature all of their perceived benefits, how many of those benefits are just perceived rather than truly necessary? Rather than simply mimicking the characteristics/performance specifications of existing plastic solutions, leaders can prioritise the traits that make the most sense for each application. Is the specified shelf-life really required, or if we change the delivery model can we use different, more sustainable materials?

To support discussion and aid strategic thinking we’ve developed a sustainable packaging compass to help navigate the many routes to success:

Sustainable packaging compass diagram

1. Optimise and reduce current packaging

Brands and manufacturers have been light-weighting/right-weighting their packaging for years. This typically involves using less materials or transitioning to new packaging formats, for example moving from rigid formats like bottles to flexible pouches. In addition, manufacturers can simplify packaging and adopt clean production methods, such as eliminating solvents or adopting sustainable manufacturing processes. UPM Raflatac, a European label manufacturer, has both light-weighted materials and adopted solvent-free adhesives as part of its sustainability strategy.

2. Sourcing sustainable materials

Brands can now source their packaging materials more sustainably by selecting those that meet certifications and standards like the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC), Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PSC) for paper and carton; and the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI).

Industry leaders can go one step further by adopting regenerative sourcing practices. For example, using waste pickers to collect waste packaging and litter while providing them with a valuable wage and livelihood. Brands can also go for carbon-positive packaging which doesn’t deplete the environment. Lush, a cosmetics company, has purchased 500,000 cork pots for its shampoo bars, which are regeneratively harvested from the bark of living trees, capture more carbon than is used to make them, and are fully biodegradable.

3. Substitute materials

There is an array of new materials, coatings and technologies to ensure your packaging is more sustainable. When adopting these it’s important to understand the full environmental impact of switching materials. For example, single-use plastic bags can be substituted for paper or reusable ones. However, reusable heavier gauge PET bags need to be used at least 50 times to be sustainable. Plastic can be substituted for recycled content or even biodegradable and compostable fibre products.

PulPac, a Swedish R&D and IP company, uses renewable pulp and cellulose to create dry-moulded fibre packaging that can be used in place of single-use plastics. This material change reduces the CO2 footprint of packaging by 80 to 90 per cent. The company is now scaling production globally. Another example is Notpla, which has created edible drink containers made from seaweed and other plants. Similarly, IKEA is replacing polystyrene with packaging materials made from mushrooms.

4. Recycling and closed-loop systems

Packaging recycling will play an important role in building a sustainable packaging system, and there is still a lot of work to do. About half of all packaging sold in the UK is still not designed to be easily recyclable. The UK’s pending legislation to tax virgin plastic material use means brands and manufacturers must increase the use of recycled materials, too. Brands need to step up to build recycling infrastructure, collection and recovery technologies that can help close the loop. That may mean partnering with a logistics company to pick up and return waste; building and upgrading recovery and recycling infrastructure; improving the quality of recycled materials; and using waste in new products.

UBQ Materials, a B-Corp start-up headquartered in Israel, has found a way to transform residential municipal solid waste into a biomass-based thermoplastic material. For every tonne used and produced, approximately 1.3 tonnes of landfilled waste are diverted and up to 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent are saved. The new material can be used for such products as pallets, waste carts and recycling bins.

5. Reuse and refill

Many of today’s products come in single-use packaging, from plastic shopping bags to e-commerce boxes. However, brands and retailers have the opportunity to develop refillable or reusable metal, glass and plastic packaging or help consumers repurpose items for a second life. Indeed, the WEF (2021) estimates that a 10 per cent Reuse Economy for packaging could reduce ocean plastic waste by half. We've produced a framework for creating a circular business model that would support this. Brands have captured the vision: more than 100 businesses have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, agreeing to trade single-use plastics for reusable packaging by 2025, wherever possible. This model has already been demonstrated to work, as companies such as SodaStream and Danone can attest.

Dunnet Bay Distillers, a Scottish craft spirits company, has developed reusable packaging for its award-winning Rock Rose Gin. The company traded traditional bottles for a lightweight recyclable foil pouch returnable by UK post, that has increased storage capacity and reduced its packaging and shipping costs.

6. Improve product performance

The ability of packaging to reduce product waste is an oft-forgotten piece of the sustainable packaging jigsaw. This may mean creating high-performance products with easier and more precise dosing, such as modern laundry detergents that come with premeasured cups, or packaging designs that eliminate Unintended Product Residues (UPR) that get left behind in the package. Personal care products in particular often have a high degree of UPR, with up to 20 per cent product left in the container at the time of disposal.

7. Develop new delivery models

Today’s sustainable packaging problems are systemic, and the solutions must be systemic too. Many opportunities will come from rethinking how products, functions or benefits get delivered to customers, and how this delivery can be made more sustainable. For example, brands can redesign their existing products to reduce packaging waste, such as creating solid, rather than liquid shampoos; and go direct-to-consumer with sustainable e-commerce packaging solutions. Perhaps the future lies in packaging-as-a service where manufacturers see there packaging as an asset.

8. Eliminate unnecessary packaging

Finally, the most sustainable packaging is what you don’t use in the first place. Does your brand need all the packaging you are using today - be it triple-wrapped luxury goods or protective coatings and wrappings. This answer can be as simple as removing a layer, or as radical as developing new technology. For example, edible coatings can protect fresh fruits and vegetables without the need to wrap or bag items individually. Laser labels eliminate plastic sticky labels from fruit and vegetables by ‘burning’ logos and information onto the product itself.

Create opportunities for your organisation

Wherever you are in your sustainable packaging journey, there are opportunities for improvement and innovation; cutting costs, reducing risk, developing profitable new lines, delighting customers and deepening relationships. Only by understanding the current status and your business ambitions, market landscape and by exploring your business needs and challenges, can you calibrate the compass and find a route to success when deciding your sustainable packaging approach.

A business-as-usual mindset won’t help you reach sustainable packaging goals. Navigating sustainable packaging success will require out of the box thinking and thoughtful execution.

About the authors

Ruan Jones PA consumer expert

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