Packaging manufacturers are hard at work offering solutions to brands that reduce environmental impacts, and there are a number of strategies to achieve these goals.
There are so many considerations when it comes to choosing the right packaging for one’s products, but ultimately sustainability has become one of the most important factors. Consumers are highly aware of the amount of waste society produces, and the shocking imagery that circulates online—whale stomachs filled with plastic bags, straws removed from the nasal cavity of tortoises—lights a fire of outrage and concern that motivates change.
Change, of course, is very gradual. That said, packaging manufacturers are hard at work offering solutions to natural product brands that reduce environmental impacts. It turns out, there are a number of strategies to achieve these goals.
When building sustainability strategies, says Balaji Jayaseelan, vice president of sustainability for Berlin Packaging (Chicago), there are three pillars.
“The first is material circularity, including recycled and recyclable materials and alternative options like compostable packaging. Phasing out materials of concern plays an essential role in an effective sustainability strategy,” says Jayaseelan. “The second pillar is component optimization—looking at ways to reduce or eliminate packaging components and improve product shelf life and performance. It includes lightweighting and optimized secondary packaging that helps with overall carbon footprint reduction. The third is refill and reuse, which is also gaining traction as a sustainable solution that creates less waste and can help drive brand loyalty and build equity.”
The goal is to create a closed loop. “Designing products that are 100% recyclable provides a supply of recycled material that can be used to develop new products for the next cycle,” Jayaseelan explains. And the players are on board. “Most companies and retailers have committed to a phased approach to reach 100% recyclability over the next several years,” he adds.
For example, the U.S. Plastics Pact, a consortium representing 33% of plastic packaging in scope in the U.S. by weight, has set a goal that 100% of its plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by the year 2025. To further reduce the environmental impact of plastics, it’s also necessary to reduce the amount of virgin resin used to create plastic packaging. To this end, the U.S. Plastics Pact also set a goal of achieving an average of 30% recycled content or responsibly sourced biobased content in plastic packaging by 2025.
“Postconsumer recycled plastic is a needed step in reducing the overall virgin resin used to generate new plastics. However, it is not appropriate for all use cases and packaging formats,” says Jennifer Park, manager of collective action at nonprofit organization The Sustainability Consortium (Scottsdale, AZ). “For example, medical supplies, food packaging, and cosmetics use a lot of small-format packaging but have different packaging specs and standards. The Pact’s 2020 Baseline Report revealed that the average postconsumer recycled content or responsibly sourced biobased content used by U.S. Pact Activators is around 7%. Biobased plastic currently makes up just a tiny fraction of this percentage. While there are different kinds of biobased plastic, this solution has a ways to go before it can be considered sustainable. In most cases, biobased plastic must be industrially composted to achieve its intended positive environmental impact.”
Efforts such as this require a great deal of investment because it means a change in infrastructure. For example, The Sustainability Consortium recently formed a coalition to tackle the problem of small-format packaging that includes bottle caps or anything smaller than two inches in two dimensions. The problem small-format packaging poses is that it does not typically get recycled.
“Even when made from recyclable material, small-format items such as caps, closures, toothbrushes, and lip balm containers do not have an economic reuse or recycling pathway in most U.S. communities. This is in large part due to the size of the screens used for sorting materials once they reach a materials recovery facility (MRF),” says Park. “We know that most small-format that enters the recycling stream ultimately ends up in landfill once it falls through the cracks at a MRF, or it goes to glass reprocessors where it can contaminate the stream. While a handful of recyclers are successfully sorting some small-format items, there is little visibility into where small packaging is ending up, the most common material types, their volume, and value from a recycling perspective. When you think about recycling as a business, it makes sense that larger items are prioritized even though small-format has the greatest potential to leak out into the environment and can negatively impact recycling efforts through contamination and damage to equipment.”
Tackling this problem is quite the undertaking because it requires consistency from packaging manufacturers to make small-format packaging recyclable, and consistency from materials recovery facilities so that they adopt the best practices and technology to make recycling possible. Therefore, it’s worth understanding whether your products can use packaging made from postconsumer resins or biobased resins—or, for that matter, whether the packaging you’re considering is recyclable at all.
Manufacturers also have some power to influence and educate consumers, says Park. “Strengthening our recycling infrastructure and establishing end markets for recyclables are essential pieces of the puzzle, but they only work if packaging itself can be recycled and we have widespread recycling participation,” she adds. “I am very encouraged by the exciting work happening around designing for recyclability and how to recycle labeling. Companies are innovating their packaging and products to ensure they are recyclable at the end of their first life. Some are engaging in precompetitive collaboration and sharing their innovations to drive widespread adoption. Proper labeling, such as the How2Recycle label, will go a long way in encouraging recycling participation. Even labeling something as ‘not recyclable’ can help reduce ‘wish cycling’ and subsequent contamination while also helping to build consumer trust that when they recycle, their efforts are not in vain.”
One of the fastest growing packaging segments is flexible packaging, says Don Earl, president of Overnight Labels (Deer Park, NY), a PLPS Company.
“A big factor is that flexible packaging has a very high product-to-package ratio, so less material is required than traditional rigid packaging. This creates a very positive domino effect on costs and sustainability,” says Earl. “Because production time is improved, the energy needed to produce it decreases, which lowers costs and reduces the overall carbon footprint. It also weighs far less than rigid packaging and takes up less space; therefore, fewer trucks are needed to ship the product, which again lowers both costs and reduces the environmental impact.”
According to Earl, flexible packaging is becoming a popular format among manufacturers and consumers because it’s easy to store and carry, is tamper evident, and can even come with reclosure and dispensing options. Meanwhile, retailers like flexible packaging because it is visually appealing and extends the shelf life of many products. Customizability, like with all packaging, is an attractive feature for flexible packaging because it allows for variations in size, shape, closures, and film type.
Freight is a big factor for flexible packaging, as Earl mentioned. Less weight and space means fewer trips and less fuel burnt in transit. Sachets with dispersible powders also encourage consumers to act more sustainably through refill-and-reuse practices such as carrying reusable water bottles instead of RTD beverages.
“Flexible packaging uses far less landfill space than rigid packaging since it only requires about half of the material,” says Earl. “That said, over the last few years, there are a number of good recyclable and compostable films that have become available, which further adds to the sustainable benefits of the product. You do need to be careful with these ‘green’ materials, though, because they may not provide enough barrier to maintain their effervescence.”
On the Package
Finally: It goes without saying that packaging sells the product. Almost every market is saturated with similar products, and they all want to stand out—but not in the wrong ways. You don’t want to look dated, but you also want to engage with your target consumer. Some want cleaner, more minimalist designs, while others want more vibrant and fun designs.
“While we still see a lot of white space and large graphics, we have also begun to see more elaborate graphic designs like holographic and other specialty effects,” says Earl. “We are also seeing a stronger commitment to using sustainable films as well as ‘smart’ packaging, which helps detect counterfeit product. Lastly, we are producing a lot of pouches that feature a clear window so the actual product is incorporated into the look of the packaging.”
“There’s a growing trend toward simple, understated brand design across a variety of categories,” offers Jayaseelan. “This is partly due to the ‘clean label’ movement, with consumers wanting simple, honest ingredients presented clearly, but it also reflects an overall desire for simplification in our everyday lives. A minimal, uncluttered design can also feel more premium, especially when paired with high-quality materials and finishes.”
“We’re also seeing brighter colors, playful graphics, and spirited language to attract millennials and younger consumers who are becoming increasingly health-conscious,” he adds.
Manufacturers should also consider inclusive designs wherever appropriate. This means packaging that is accessible to everyone, regardless of age, disability, or physical limitations, says Jayaseelan. “This includes lids and seals that are easier to open and close, ergonomic forms that allow for optimized handling and dispensing, braille markings and larger fonts for those with visual impairments, and intuitive design that is easy for everyone to understand and use.”
Finally, with ecommerce being such an important component of product sales, products should be optimized to sell just as well online as they would on the shelf. “Consideration needs to be given to how the design will perform on a white computer screen or when reduced to a thumbnail image,” Jayaseelan explains. “We created a new custom bottle and label design for [supplements brand] ZenWise with online shopping in mind. The striking black bottle and unique silhouette stands out on ecommerce sites.”