Behind-the-Scenes Sustainability Opportunities: Secondary Packaging

November 10,2022 Category: Cost Savings, Packaging Development, Quality Optimization
Packaging plays an integral role in product development and marketing, but the packaging that the consumer or end-user sees is usually only one part of a whole. The packaging system that carries the product safely from its production facility to its final destination includes more than just the primary packaging most consumers are familiar with; it also includes additional layers of packaging that aid in shipping and protection of those primary packages. While designing products and packaging using sustainable materials or producing minimal waste is a step in the right direction, behind the scenes, there’s a lot of opportunity for brands to make packaging more environmentally friendly, which studies show is growing in appeal to consumers and can drive their purchasing decisions.

According to a 2022 study by IBM, nearly half of all consumers have paid a premium for environmentally-conscious products, while three out of four consumers report wanting to do more at home to reach their personal sustainability goals. The rising importance of sustainable packaging isn’t driven only by consumers – legislation in many regions mandates sustainable practices, and many global retailers have established policies that require certain packaging characteristics for products they’ll sell on their shelves or through their websites.

Packaging and its components can be broken down into three levels: primary, secondary and tertiary. In basic terms, primary packaging is directly in contact with the product or good. It may be the layer that consumers first see, which means it should be attractive and include valuable information about the product and its contents. In addition to marketing and educating the consumer, primary packaging protects the product. Secondary packaging is the unit that contains the primary package for protection or additional marketing. Tertiary packaging is the shipping unit which bundles a specific quantities of groups secondary or primary packages together. It may provide additional with protection to the product as it makes its way through the supply chain and can take on different forms in different situations. An illustrative example:

Adept Group has covered sustainability in primary packaging extensively in previous blogs, white papers, and Learning Share webinars. A future blog will focus on sustainability opportunities for tertiary packaging. The remainder of this blog will focus on secondary packaging.


Secondary Packaging

We can think of secondary packaging as a box or container that contains a specific quantity of primary packages. For example, the primary packaging for liquid laundry detergent is typically a plastic bottle – HDPE, PP, PET or some combination of those three. When those bottles arrive at a brick-and-mortar retailer, they’re usually grouped together in a secondary package – typically corrugated paperboard. Though those materials may vary for different products depending on their needs or different industries depending on their regulatory requirements, the basic organization and purpose of the primary and secondary packs remains the same.

Secondary packaging helps brands keep their primary packaging in good condition, maintaining the shape, size and integrity of the primary package. While there are some situations where brands can improve packaging sustainability by eliminating the secondary layer, it remains essential for many products as it keeps product and the primary package free of any damage or contamination. In these cases, secondary packaging cannot be eliminated, but there are opportunities to improve sustainability by replacing materials with more sustainable alternative or optimizing design with sustainability in mind.

Brands should look for opportunities to rightsize or lightweight their packaging – two different solutions with similar goals for enhancing sustainability. Rightsizing allows packaging teams to eliminate excess space in packaging, scale down on unnecessary packaging components and potentially, fit more product per shipper. This can also help reduce the product's footprint, allowing for more product per pallet load.

Lightweighting allows brands to reduce the weight or gauge of the packaging, making transportation and interactions at touchpoints more efficient. This can often be done through simplifying designs and materials, for example getting rid of unnecessary partitions within the packaging or switching from heavy materials like glass to more lightweight materials, such as rPET. Transitioning to a more environmentally friendly material is one of the most practical ways to introduce more sustainability to packaging systems. This applies to all levels of packaging.

In some cases, the best option is to look toward the Three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – and also compostable material options. Waste is one of the biggest challenges facing the packaging industry, so finding a solution that reduces or eliminates packaging components without impacting protection and quality is an opportunity to make progress. By lightweighting and rightsizing packaging and simplifying designs and materials, brands can make significant strides toward sustainability goals (while saving potentially millions along the way) all without impacting the consumer’s experience with the product.

If you’d like to discuss your options for improving sustainability in secondary packaging or any part of your packaging operation, get in touch. Adept Group has experience helping brands in all industries solve their sustainable packaging challenges, and we’re ready to help you progress on your sustainability journey.