Sustainability in Packaging

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The impact of public and private sustainability efforts continues to grow in the US packaging industry. Driven by rising concern about the environmental effects of packaging production, use, and disposal, these efforts are driving a shift in product mix toward packaging that can help packaging producers and end users meet such targets as:

  • source reduction (i.e., reducing packaging material volume)
  • improved recycling rates, especially for plastics
  • increased use of materials that are biodegradable and/or compostable
  • increased use of recycled content in packaging
  • expansion of reusable packaging programs

However, packaging sustainability is not straightforward, and cost and performance will continue to be top priorities of packaging customers.

Pandemic Accelerates Expansion of Private Sustainability Targets While Public Efforts Slow

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a backdrop for expansion of private sector sustainability targets, even as the pandemic has caused public sector efforts to slow somewhat. These efforts have been most pronounced in the food, beverage, and consumer markets, with major packaging firms as well as end users – including Nestlé, Keurig Dr Pepper, PepsiCo, and L’Oréal – announcing aggressive new goals for packaging sustainability and introducing packaging solutions to meet established ones. Sustainability efforts have also grown in the e-commerce market. For instance, in 2021, major shipping concerns in Europe launched reusable e-commerce packaging solutions that could translate to the US market.

Pledging to Cut Virgin Plastics, Packaging End Users Look to Paper, Bioplastic, & Molded Fiber

Reducing use of virgin plastics is a key goal of packaging sustainability efforts, and leading US packaging suppliers including Amcor and Berry Global are showing dedication to these trends by participating in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment and similar pledges. While some companies are exploring ways to fulfill such pledges by making plastic more eco-friendly – such as by improving recyclability or increasing use of recycled content – others are looking to shift away from conventional plastics altogether, changes that benefit materials that are perceived as more sustainable, including paper, bioplastics, and molded fiber. Though often higher cost and lower performance than plastics, these materials are increasingly the focus of product development efforts. A number of promising introductions have occurred in recent years, including Sonoco Products’ Natrellis molded sugarcane, PABOCO’s paper bottles, and Danimer Scientific’s Nodax PHA bioplastic resin for use in packaging.

Metal & Glass Also Benefit from Interest in Reusable Packaging

Reusable packaging programs are of increasing interest as a means to meet corporate source-reduction goals and provide consumers with further sustainable packaging options. Most reusable packaging is made from metal, glass, or other durable materials that do not quickly degrade under use and cleaning. Though generally higher in cost and heavier in weight (which makes shipping less energy efficient), metal and glass packaging are highly recyclable and reusable, boosting their environmental profile when they exit circulation in reusable packaging programs.

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