Press release

PA Consulting survey reveals four in five consumers don’t prioritise sustainable packaging

15 February 2024

PA Consulting (PA), the company that’s bringing ingenuity to life, has surveyed 4,000 consumers in the UK and US, uncovering new trends in attitudes to packaging at quick-service restaurants. The research reveals a major gap between consumer intent and action around sustainable packaging: nearly four in five (78%) fail to choose products with reusable and refillable packaging, despite a similar number (80%) believing we must all play a part in reducing plastics. The survey highlights the need to design for human behaviour, above and beyond simply offering sustainable packaging.

Key findings from the survey include:

  • The majority are concerned about plastic packaging. 80% believe we have a collective responsibility to reduce the need for single-use plastics and over half (57%) worry about the amount of single-use plastic and unrecyclable materials used in takeaway food and drink packaging.
  • However, there’s a huge gap between action and intent. Two in five (38%) recognise the importance of being environmentally friendly, but find it hard to incorporate this in their daily routine. 76% don’t choose products with minimal or no plastic packaging and 77% don’t choose products made from recycled or easily recyclable materials to reduce waste. Almost half (45%) don’t recycle paper, plastic, glass and metal products in designated recycling bins or centres.
  • The culture of convenience is a barrier to adoption. 44% cite difficulty in remembering to bring reusable packaging and 39% worry about the hassle of returning, cleaning, or storing reusable packaging. This highlights the need to design systems that make it easier to store, clean, and return packaging, with clear communications around expected pack care.
  • Humans focus more on immediate threats. The majority (61%) think ‘reducing litter’ is the top benefit of reusable packaging – which suggests that people find it easier to engage with messaging around ‘litter’ than wider sustainability goals, as it hits closer to home.
  • Carrot beats stick: people are incentivised by financial rewards. Rather than charging deposits or fines, as is increasingly common, businesses must reward positive behaviours. 43% of consumers would use reusable packaging more if they received a small monetary reward for returning it and 37% if there was no fee to borrow the packaging.
  • One size doesn’t fit all: motivations and engagement vary between demographics. Nearly half (49%) of Boomers would need assurance of reusable packaging’s cleanliness, a figure which falls to 31% among Gen Z. Conversely, 43% of Gen Zers were keen to receive a donation to a charity of their choice, compared to 38% of Boomers. Meanwhile, 71% of high-income earners use reusable cups and containers, compared to 55% among low-income earners. Personalised incentives are therefore encouraged.
Reusable and refillable packaging is at a critical juncture, with the quick-service industry seeking ways to accelerate sustainability and new plastics and packaging regulation coming into force globally. However, our survey highlights that behavioural change is needed to make reusable packaging stick and close the say-do gap. We need to lead with a human-centered approach to design: Understanding how to motivate consumers and remove barriers to engagement; designing packaging systems that enable convenient returns; and regular nudges at the most valuable points of influence in the customer and pack journey. Only in doing so will businesses be able to tip the balance towards planet-positive consumer behaviour and leverage the full opportunities of sustainable packaging to build a positive human future.”
PA’s Design Strategy Lead for the UK

PA conducted the survey in November 2023 with 2,000 respondents across both the UK and US (4,000 respondents combined) who shop from 28 leading brands. The purpose of the survey was to understand consumer intent, challenges, motivations, and needs around refill and reuse packaging.

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