Unpacking the myth
Sustainability has become an increasingly hot topic in the packaging industry, partially driven by new EU regulatory frameworks, which set out new requirements for packaging.
Consumers, brand owners, packaging makers and legislators unanimously agree that sustainability is important and that something needs to change. However, it is often relatively unclear to value chain stakeholders, what “sustainable packaging” really is.
Sustainable packaging actions can be categorised into three key efforts: 1) improving circularity, 2) reaching carbon neutrality and 3) eliminating waste leakage into the environment.
Circularity focused on recyclability and increasing recycled content
In response to growing pressure to address sustainability challenges, many brand owners and retailers have made moves to promote circularity and have incorporated 100% recyclable packaging into their sustainability goals. While this is a step in the right direction, actual recycling rates are low.
Only by addressing this next-level challenge, through investment in recycling infrastructure, finding markets and value for recycled materials and educating consumers in sorting practices, can the industry move from ambition to action and the packaging from recyclable to recycled. As an alternative to recycled packaging, types of biodegradable and compostable packaging have been introduced. However, care must be taken to find the correct applications, as this type of packaging can create confusion in the market and dilute the benefits of end-user recycling efforts.
Increased awareness of carbon neutrality and collective action
Fibre-based packaging can have advantages, if originating from sustainably sourced raw materials. At the same time, it is important to factor in the impact of deforestation, energy-intensive manufacturing processes and an overall heavier packaging weight, which can lead to increased end-product logistics emissions. Stakeholders are currently putting effort into reducing the carbon footprint in the parts of the value chain that they can control, however this is just the beginning. Through redesigning the value chain in collaboration with all participants, a lightweight, innovative, net-zero packaging is possible in the future.
Stopping the flow of microplastic waste leakage
In a move to reduce microplastic waste leakage into the environment, EU legislation is driving a reduction of fossil-based materials, which is strongly backed by consumer views. Material reduction has already been trending for a decade and has especially affected secondary packaging usage. These days, the focus has shifted towards light-weighting of materials and redesigning of solutions. Consumers consider fibre-based packaging more eco-friendly due to its recyclability, renewability and compostability. And, although this is true in many cases, it’s important to keep sight of those cases where fibre-based packaging can be less than eco-friendly. Even though fibre-based packaging producers have found a sweet spot for now, development of highly functional barrier solutions will be necessary to make fibre-based packaging truly fit-for-purpose, for example, in food packaging.
Covering all the bases
Achieving true sustainable packaging performance relies on optimally protecting the product inside the packaging as well as prioritisation of the three sustainability aspects. Ideally, the three key elements – circularity, carbon neutrality and zero waste leakage – can be achieved simultaneously. As this is often not possible, the current reality is that one of them often ends up being prioritised over the others. Through a crystal clear understanding of the requirements and priorities along the whole packaging value chain, future success is in sight.
To be or not to be?
Let us consider “truly sustainable” packaging through two topical cases:
Case 1: Can e-commerce packaging market growth continue at the expense of circularity?
E-commerce is predicted to continue to increase, which poses an important challenge, even if fully recyclable corrugated boxes are the primary packaging format used. Circularity relies on packaging materials staying within the raw material supply loop, which was easier when the bulk of used containers could be collected from traditional sales outlets. Through the diffusing nature of e-commerce, there is no longer the same consolidated pool of used raw materials. There are further factors to overcome related to e-commerce, in addition to the setback in circularity. Products require individual transit packaging for shipping and are delivered one-by-one to consumers, who return a large share of products received. How can the packaging industry prepare itself to respond to future increased sustainability requirements for e-commerce?
Case 2: Moulded fibre – A sustainable challenger for traditional packaging materials?
Food service packaging items easily end up as litter in the environment. The EU’s newly introduced single-use plastic directive aims to tackle this issue by banning or reducing consumption of certain packaging types, such as straws, EPS containers, cups and plates. While polymer coated fibre-based products fall under the directive as well, moulded fibre products might avoid this, thanks to barrier properties typically achieved without surface coating. Moulded fibre currently represents only a minor share of today’s packaging market, however interest has been growing rapidly. State-of-the-art moulded fibre comes at a competitive cost level, even compared to traditional plastic products. The catch is that moulded fibre contains synthetic polymers as well, just added in a different production phase.
Wrapping it up
Amidst a wide array of improved-but-not-perfect packaging solutions, the packaging industry is racing to find new solutions that come closer to enabling the recyclability and recycling that are fundamental to circularity. Real and sustainable progress demands change and the whole value chain must be re-evaluated, as it is clear that improving one sustainability parameter at the expense of the others is not the answer. The answer can only be a future where sales are generated through packaging that is not simply perceived as sustainable, but that is truly sustainable.