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Consumers are increasingly considering the way their food is packaged, particularly with an eye toward the amount and utility of packaging. Considerations for packaging go beyond quantity: packaging serves a variety of functions, from the core purpose of protecting food from damage, tampering, and premature spoilage to the ability to improve convenience via cook-in-packaging or resealability. Sustainability of packaging is also increasingly on the minds of consumers, as climate change and waste issues receive more media attention.
Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic led to more people eating more of their food at home and the amount of packaging waste involved became even more evident:
- Food purchased for home consumption via retail outlets uses more packaging per serving because it is sold and shipping in smaller quantities.
- Consumers who are eating more food at home as opposed to having their meals prepared by others are interacting with packaging more often during the course of their daily lives.
While food suppliers are also interested in packaging that attracts consumers’ eyes as they walk through retail stores, consumers generally are not consciously aware of it.
COVID-19 Pandemic Drives Changes in Food Shopping & Consumption Patterns
The COVID-19 pandemic had a notable impact on the food packaging market in 2020, both in terms of the foods being packaged and the types of packaging used. Sharp declines in foodservice sales and stay-at-home recommendations led to a shift away from restaurants and an increase in cooking at home. Interest in food that can be stocked in a freezer or elsewhere became a higher priority for more consumers. An increase in snacking and heathier eating also changed the types of food purchased and corresponding packaging needs.
Sustainability Is Increasingly Important to Consumers
Sustainability continues to be one of the highest profile stories in the food packaging market, with producers of the different types of packaging jockeying to be seen as the most environmentally friendly choice. This is driven in part by consumer awareness of the amount of waste generated by their household food consumption, coupled with increased media coverage of sustainability challenges.
However, the definition of sustainability continues to be problematic and often is focused on only one or two packaging parameters instead of total lifecycle environmental cost. While consumer awareness of this complexity is increasing, the issues involving waste – how the packaging is disposed of – and how it protects the food remain in the front of consumers’ minds.
Recycling & Minimizing Waste
While most people (74%) think it is important to recycle, a smaller share (59%) actively try to minimize their unrecyclable waste. Recycling has come to be a common practice in many households at least for the items that can be recycled easily (e.g., via a curbside pickup or a central bin in an apartment building), but waste reduction is a newer concept that has not yet reached the same level of adoption.
There are some distinctions for these attitudes among particular demographic groups:
- Belief in both the need to recycle everything one can and to minimize unrecyclable household waste is highest among those with higher incomes. However, the biggest jump is between those with household incomes less than $50,000 and those with household incomes above $50,000 so it is not only about being wealthy, but perhaps also about the time to sort waste and access to recycling services.
- Those who live in urban areas are the most interested in household waste reduction (64%), likely to due to the greater visibility of waste when there is less room to store it.
- In general, interest in recycling everything one can rises with age. However, interest in unrecyclable waste reduction peaks in the middle years and is lowest among the senior population. While recycling has achieved widespread adoption, the concept of waste reduction is newer and likely more familiar to younger people.
Environmental Attitudes Over Time
Environmental concern and awareness has been increasing over the past several years. For instance, the number of people who agreed that climate change is a serious threat rose from 66% in 2015 to 72% in 2021. Conversely, the number of people who think worry about climate change is an overreaction has fallen from 34% in 2015 to 24% in 2021, with the sharpest decline happening between 2020 and 2021. Media attention to the issue, coupled with a variety of corporate pledges for cleaner operations and more sustainable production and shipping have put climate change in view to more people over this time period.
Similarly, the belief that action is needed is also increasing. For instance, the number of people who believe that the government should be paying more attention has risen from 75% in 2015 to 79% in 2021. Personal interest in finding out how to do more to help the environment has been high, but with slower change over the same period. In 2015, 66% of respondents wanted to find out more, but while that share reached 70% in 2020, it dipped again to 68% in 2021. The return to more normal living, working, and school conditions for more people in 2021, along with the rise of other concerns (e.g., rising prices and periodic shortages for some key consumer goods), likely distracted at least some people from environmental action.