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Sustainable Packaging Trends

Posted 12 Jul 2022 by Justine Hanlon, Senior Account Manager, Tapes, Labels, and Graphics

Sustainability in packaging is everywhere, going from a niche goal of a few small companies to a global phenomenon in the past three years. There are many prominent resources of information, but packaging doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all model. Different materials and goods have different packaging requirements; the item being packaged must be considered when talking about packaging and the role it plays.

Packaging sustainability continued to evolve during the Covid-19 pandemic. While plastic packaging, specifically single-use plastics, increased by 30% during lockdown and quarantine periods, consumers' desire for sustainability is back and in higher demand than ever.

The best options for the environment are:

  1. To have no packaging at all
  2. To reduce the amount of packaging 
  3. To ensure a package is not over engineered, but fit-for-use or fit-for-purpose

There is an enormous opportunity to make sure the packaging for different goods is not over-engineered, but is fit for use. Fit-for-use packaging is a concept that considers the entire supply chain, product needs and consumer needs. For example, switching candy bars from a plastic wrapper to paper is a possibility, if the candy bar consumption will occur in a relatively short period of time. 

Every packaging format comes with tradeoffs. Paper is inherently better for some items, but raises questions around deforestation. Glass is a preferred packaging material, but it has a large carbon footprint. Multilayer laminates, also known as flexible packaging, can be difficult to recycle. 

Brand Expectations (Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) Expectations)

As consumers become more eco-conscious and values driven, they become aware of the impact their purchases have on the environment and the conversation increasingly turns toward packaging. Packaging can protect brand integrity, protect contents, reduce food waste and delight customers. However, packaging can be a significant challenge for CPGs, as made evident by the viral videos of packaging washing ashore onto beaches around the world. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has reported that 8 million tons of plastic waste go into the world’s oceans every year. Consumers are increasingly reacting to statistics like this by asking for greater transparency from CPGs and, therefore, the world’s largest packaging suppliers. In a recent global survey conducted by Nielsen, 81% of respondents believe brands have a responsibility to help improve the environment. 

E-commerce Sustainability

Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging (FFP) initiative is the market leader, changing packaging one box and bag at a time. E-commerce sustainability, although still in its infancy, is gaining traction among consumers who are concerned about the environmental impact of the increased frequency of shipping. Amazon’s Vendor Incentive Program applies to all items larger than 18 x 14 x 8 in. or 20 lb. or more and requires all packaging to be designed and certified as Tier 1 FFP or Tier 2 Ships in Own Container (SIOC). Other online retailers are following suit and reviewing their packaging carefully. Their efforts include: reducing excess packaging, evaluating easy open features, and looking at packaging that is easier to recycle or reuse. The goal for all retailers is to reduce packaging waste and the shipment of empty space.

Reducing Packaging

There’s growing demand around the world to limit the proliferation of single-use plastics and governments are responding with legislation, regulations and taxes designed to drive change. Reducing single-use plastics is a noble goal and there is growing exploration into not just reducing single-use plastics, but single-use packaging altogether. This forward thinking suggests that brands and consumers are becoming savvier and more mindful of throw-away culture, regardless of the package type.

Reusing Packaging

Along with the trend of reducing packaging, there is a growing interest in reusable packaging with companies from LOOPSealed Air and Conscious Container piloting different packaging formats that can be easily reused or repurposed. Companies across the circular economy value chain are looking to quickly innovate in response to consumer demand, the quantity of packaging and type of material they use based on the materials sustainability impact.

Post-Consumer Recycled Content (PCR)

As the sustainability megatrend continues to gain steam, large CPGs are driving demand for recycled content such as Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR). However, the demand is currently outpacing supply due to the fractured nature of plastics recycling recovery efforts in some countries including the United States. This leads to higher costs compared to virgin plastic materials and includes significant demand being driven at the CPG level.

PCR continues to be of interest to flexible packaging and rigid packaging makers, but it comes with challenges. 

  • Brand-led sustainability initiatives to include a specified PCR content level may make sourcing materials difficult. 
  • Taxation, such as the U.K’s tax  on any packaging containing less than 30% PCR material, can lead to brand and consumer confusion and misinformation. 
  • PCR is not usually allowed in direct food contact applications, so it must be used in secondary food packaging or in industrial applications. 

The future of packaging must include some form of recycled content, but there is work to be done to increase the availability of PCR, decrease its cost and clarify the regulatory status of the material.

Recycling Partnerships

Groups, such as Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), both of which H.B. Fuller is both a member, are working to understand shifting legislation and needs, specifically in the United States. Efforts include creating clear guidelines and preferred labeling schemes, as well as education outreach. Sensing an opportunity within the flexible packaging industry, companies are partnering with or creating their own recycling groups. The aim is to vertically integrate the recycling of typically hard to recycle plastics into the packaging production chain. This allows large packaging converters to ensure their own supply of recycled material and help their customers achieve their goals.

Navigating the trends in sustainable packaging can be difficult. As new technologies evolve and larger global CPGs become more open about their sustainability initiatives, looking at how to best serve your customers can be overwhelming. At H.B. Fuller, connecting what matters extends beyond adhesives – to connecting you to the right subject matter expert for your sustainable packaging needs. H.B. Fuller has many different adhesives that are all able to support your sustainable solution needs, across many different areas. Click here to learn more.

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