In the Packaging Industry, It’s Not Easy Going Green

In the Packaging Industry, It’s Not Easy Going Green

While sustainability is a complicated concept comprised of myriad factors, when it comes to packaging, consumers tend to focus most on source material:

  • Though plastic can contribute to packaging sustainability in some ways because of its light weight and recyclability, consumers view the material increasingly negatively as news of the toll of plastic waste on both environmental and human health continues to spread.
  • Paper, bioplastics, and molded fibers are often viewed as the most sustainable packaging materials, in large part because – unlike plastic – they are renewable (i.e., sourced from plants), and they are typically recyclable and/or biodegradable or compostable.

Packaging end users are also increasingly focused on source material – both to meet growing consumer demand for sustainable packaging and to fulfill their own corporate sustainability goals, which often include drastically reducing consumption of plastic. Sustainable packaging can also boost shelf appeal and justify premium pricing for a product with certain consumers.

As a result, packaging suppliers – many of whom have pledged to reduce use of plastic themselves – are investing in the development of plastic-alternative packaging solutions for a growing range of end-use markets, from food and beverage to personal care items.

However, all that decomposes is not green: for instance, bioplastics such as PLA are not easy to compost, and the multilayer structures of paper mailers and pouches can render the package non-recyclable despite being made from materials that are otherwise easy to recycle. Furthermore, the cost and performance drawbacks of some nonplastic materials limit their ability to be widely employed.

Though the path to packaging sustainability is not straight-forward, brands and packaging suppliers continue to trial and error new material solutions in hopes of getting closer to their targets.

From Absolut to L’Oréal, Brands Explore Paper Bottles

Paper is often considered the most viable sustainable plastic-alternative packaging material because it is already widely used in the packaging industry, primarily in corrugated boxes and folding cartons, and it is recycled at much higher rates than plastic. However, paper’s cost and performance drawbacks including poor moisture properties have restricted its use over plastic in applications such as beverage bottles. That’s beginning to change. For example:

  • In March 2022, Keurig Dr Pepper announced that it would unveil a prototype for a recyclable and compostable paper bottle later in the year as part of its pledge to reduce use of virgin plastic by 20% by 2025.
  • In 2021, Cocoa-Cola announced it would trial paper bottles developed by Swedish firm BillerudKorsnäs in the European market.
  • In 2020, Absolut Vodka announced that packaging firm PABOCO was developing a paper bottle for the brand that is scheduled to launch in 2023.

Kraft Heinz is also exploring a paper cup for its microwavable macaroni and cheese, a potentially disruptive first-of-its-kind product for the food packaging market.

Use of paper bottles is expanding in other packaging markets, as well. For instance, L’Oréal has offered compostable, shower-proof paper-based bottles from PABOCO for some personal care products since 2018. In 2021, the company expanded the use of paper bottles across its product portfolio as part of its pledge to shift 50% of its plastic packaging to recycled or biobased sources by 2025 and 100% by 2030.

Molded Fiber Packaging Finds Niche with Premium Brands

While molded pulp is primarily limited to small applications such as eggs and fresh produce due to performance drawbacks, other molded fibers – notably sugarcane – are being positioned as a viable alternative to plastic with comparable performance in a growing range of packaging applications, including food and personal care items. For example:

  • In March 2021, Nestlé introduced lids and spoons made from 66% and 95% sugarcane, respectively, for its NAN baby food and nutraceutical products.
  • In September 2021, luxury brand Chanel relaunched its No5 perfume in a bagasse-based clamshell developed by Knoll Packaging. The mono-material Knoll Ecoform pulp clamshell is made of FSC-certified bamboo and bagasse.

Among Bioplastics, PHA Is a Promising Contender

Bioplastics are appealing alternatives to traditional plastic packaging because they are biodegradable or compostable and have comparable performance to PE, PET, and other traditional plastics in key applications. However, in addition to being significantly more expensive than conventional resins, bioplastics have certain drawbacks when it comes to sustainability. For example:

  • While polylactic acid (PLA) is the most prevalent biobased resin used in packaging due to its higher performance compared to other biobased resins currently on the market, it is not biodegradable.
  • Additionally, PLA is not easily compostable, and some industrial composting facilities refuse the material.

Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) is a relatively new bioplastic that is receiving interest from packaging end users. Unlike PLA, PHA can break down in the ocean under certain conditions, boosting its sustainability profile. A number of PHA products have come to market in recent years:

  • Danimer Scientific’s Nodax PHA resin is biodegradable and can be composted at home, unlike PLA.
  • Singapore-based RWDC Industries has developed Solon, a biodegradable PHA that is derived from such feedstocks as discarded cooking oil and can be used to make straws, food containers, cups, lids, utensils.
  • US-based startup Full Cycle is developing a PHA for use in applications ranging from packaging to clothing.

Proliferation of Reusable Packaging Programs Boost Prospects for Metal & Glass

Expanding participation in packaging reuse programs such as Loop represents another increasingly important way packaging end users are pursuing sustainability – and affecting the material mix for packaging products. Because reusable packaging must be durable enough for multiple uses, materials such as metal and glass are more commonly used than in other packaging segments.

Reusable packaging is currently most utilized in food applications, though other applications with strong growth potential include personal care and household items. For example:

  • In February 2022, Kao debuted reusable plastic packaging for its MyKirei brand of shampoos and other personal care products.
  • Other brands offering reusable packaging through loop include Clorox and Seventh Generation household products.

Additionally, a range of reusable packaging solutions are in development for e-commerce applications, such as reusable mailers and shipping boxes. For example:

  • In 2021, major shipping concerns including FedEx Express, InPost, and MODIVO introduced reusable e-commerce packaging solutions across multiple European markets that could translate to the US market.
  • Also in 2021, the cofounder of Jet.com launched Olive, a reusable packaging program that aims to reduce e-commerce packaging waste by consolidating home deliveries in reusable tote bags that are dropped off weekly. Partners include more than 100 major retailers, including Anthropologie, Paige, Ray-Ban and Ugg.

Want to Learn More?

See The Freedonia Group’s collection of market research studies covering various US and global packaging markets.

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