Sustainability has been an impossible topic for brands to avoid in recent years. In C-suites, production lines, packaging departments and beyond, everyone has had to think about ways to decrease the environmental impact of the business. The good news is that by keeping a handful of concepts in mind, brands can build sustainability into almost any project their packaging team tackles.
The world produces around 300 million tons of plastic waste each year, and around 60% of the plastic produced since the 1950s either made its way to a landfill or ended up polluting the natural environment, including at least 8 million tons that go into the ocean every year. The bad news is that the need for more sustainable packaging is desperate; the good news is there is a wide margin for sustainable improvement in almost all packaging.
For organizations that aren’t swayed by the purely altruistic factors, there are plenty of other drivers pushing brands toward more sustainable packaging. Research shows that consumer demand for more sustainable products continues to grow. If a brand hasn’t responded to those changing consumer preferences, chances are its competitors have. Many of the biggest consumer brands in the world have publicly committed to aggressive sustainability goals, and dozens have partnered with organizations like the Ellen Macarthur Foundation to help them reach those goals.
State governments in the U.S. are considering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that shift the costs of handling packaging waste back onto the companies that produce it. Maine became the first U.S. state to pass EPR legislation, and Oregon may not be far behind. Those states are decades behind governments in Europe, where Germany adopted a form of EPR in 1991. These regulations are pushing sustainable packaging from something that’s nice to have to something brands can’t afford to ignore.
Combined, these drivers are pushing the packaging industry to accelerate sustainability programs, and while it may not be the only priority guiding packaging engineers, there are a handful of considerations that can help them build sustainable improvements into their other projects.
Design with the End in Mind
Any package design project should include a life cycle analysis that carefully considers the impact of a package at each stage of its life, including:
- Resource extraction
- End of life
Each of these stages offers opportunities to improve sustainability, including reducing the thickness of corrugate and other materials to make manufacturing less wasteful and decrease fuel consumption during distribution and creating packaging that can be reused instead of thrown away after a single-use. End of life may be the stage where opportunities are easiest to identify, as recyclable and compostable materials remove packaging from the waste stream entirely. Thinking about the consumer’s experience with municipal recycling systems may lead to designing packaging from a single, recyclable material or a small number of recyclable materials that separate easily, both of which make responsible disposal an easy task for the end-user.
Use Recycled Materials
As the regulatory landscape that affects packaging waste continues to evolve, many brands will be forced to use recycled materials for their packaging. In the meantime, there are still plenty of environmental advantages to using recycled materials for packaging when compared to using virgin materials. From a consumer messaging perspective, manufacturing recycled plastics produces 65-70% less greenhouse gasses than manufacturing virgin plastic. Production of one ton of recycled plastic saves 5,774-kilowatt hours of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTU’s of energy, and 30 cubic yards of landfill space when compared to virgin plastic
Purchasing recycled materials drives more demand for those materials, which makes them more profitable and incentives producers of recycled materials to scale up their operations, a long-term benefit for all brands.
Avoid Common Pitfalls
Suppliers are always going to leverage messaging that highlights the best attributes of the materials they sell, but it’s important to understand what they’re selling and what their claims really mean. Messaging around “biodegradable” materials, for example, can confuse both brands and consumers. Over a long enough period, just about all materials can be considered biodegradable; cynically, one can say plastic is biodegradable if you look at it over the course of hundreds of years.
“Compostable” is a much more meaningful designation, as it signifies that the material biodegrades in a specific amount of time and under well-defined conditions. Doing the research upfront allows brands to have more meaningful conversations with their suppliers about sustainable materials.
Degradable additives are another easy trap packaging for packaging departments to fall into. Suppliers will tell you these additives help materials biodegrade, but this process breaks plastics down into microplastics that can remain in the environment longer. The EU has already banned some of these additives, and other regulatory bodies are likely to follow suit.
Use Less Plastic
Packaging is a growing driver of plastic production when compared to other uses for plastic, but it’s one of the easier areas in which we can decrease use. Despite the industry’s growing efforts, only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled. Benefits to reducing plastic packaging waste include lower greenhouse gas emissions, decreased use of non-renewable resources and less trash going to incinerators, landfills and the natural environment.
There are many ways to decrease the amount of plastic used in packaging, including decreasing the thickness of plastic packaging, designing plastic packaging to be reusable and using more sustainable alternatives.
Consulate A Sustainability Expert
Knowledge about technologies, materials, tools and regulations around sustainability is constantly evolving and it can be difficult to keep up with the latest information. An expert who focuses on sustainability can help demystify advances in the field. They’re also likely to have insight into what competitors and brands in other industries are doing to make progress against their sustainability goals and know what’s working and what isn’t. A true sustainability expert can provide a strategy tailored to meet a brand’s unique packaging needs and a set of clear, actionable steps to meet sustainability goals. Adept Group’s sustainability experts can help your brand conduct an audit and identify projects that will make the most meaningful impact toward your sustainability goals.
No matter where your brand is in its sustainability journey, Adept Group can help you accelerate progress toward your goals. If you’re looking for help building a strategy or advancing toward existing sustainability goals, get in touch. We can help.