Takeaways from Sustainability in Packaging US 2023

March 28,2023 Category: Packaging Development, Sustainability
Members of the Adept Group team attended Sustainability in Packaging US in Chicago from March 8 to 10. In addition to presenting a Lunch and Learn session on sustainability through logistics and speaking on a panel focused on Building Sustainability Through Packaging and Product Development, our sustainable packaging experts had the privilege of speaking with and learning from other thought leaders in the industry.

If you weren’t able to attend or you just want to know more about the event, our team identified a few of the most interesting topics they encountered during this year’s conference.

Sustainable Sourcing

Brands across all industries are focused on reducing or eliminating single-use plastics in their packaging, but a transition away from plastic without sourcing replacement materials sustainably can have unintended consequences. A sharp increase in demand for paper-based packaging materials can lead to deforestation and associated consequences such as loss of animal habitats and accelerated soil erosion.

Without sustainable sourcing, packaging teams may just be trading one problem for another, but there are organizations such as Canopy that are working to solve this problem and connect brands with sustainable supply solutions.

Chemical Recycling

While phasing plastics out of packaging is an important goal, the reality is that we’re unlikely to break away from it completely in the foreseeable future. For some industries, plastic’s barrier properties make it nearly irreplaceable. For others, its light weight, durability, versatility and abundant supply make it too valueable to eliminate completely from their packaging.

Mechanical recycling – shredding and then melting used plastics – is limited in its ability to combat the flow of plastic to landfills. It can only accommodate certain plastic types, such as PET and HDPE, and cannot accommodate mixed plastics. While Germany and some other countries have strong cultures around sorting and recycling plastic, the US and many other places in the world lack adequate sortation practices. In fact, while nearly 30 percent of PET and HDPE bottles are recycled in the U.S. according to the EPA, the overall US recycling rate for plastics is only about 8.7 percent. Additionally, mechanical recycling degrades the strength and durability of the material, meaning most plastic can only be recycled once or twice before the resulting material is unusable.

A handful of companies are hard at work refining chemical recycling processes for plastic, which will help close some of the gaps left by the mechanical recycling process. Chemical recycling breaks down plastics into their constituent molecules and opens new possibilities. For example, a chemical process can accommodate mixed plastics, streamlining the overall process, and a wider range of plastic types. It also produces a higher quality output, similar to virgin quality polymers, extending the lifespan of the materials. Because the chemical recycling process can accommodate plastic materials that don’t fit into the mechanical recycling stream, it can be much more effective at keeping plastics out of landfills.

Chemical recyclers still need to make progress before it becomes a reliable solution to the plastic problem. The process is currently more energy intensive than mechanical recycling and it emits greenhouse gasses, a notable tradeoff. Because it is still in its early stages of development, chemical recycling’s limited scale also makes it expensive when compared to mechanical processes.

There is heavy investment in chemical recycling technology, and if it continues to advance at its current pace, it may not be long before plastics become a part of the circular economy.

Sustainability as a Moving Target

It can be easy for packaging professionals to focus on sustainability that meet today’s challenges, but with rapid pace of change in this line of work, it’s important to think about future sustainability needs. Packaging professionals should think not only about the today’s sustainability challenges, but also those that are likely to appear in the near future so they can prepare for the next steps.

While recycling is a necessary part the current sustainability framework, we’ll need to go further to achieve a truly circular economy. Packaging teams should think about ways to design packaging for reuse with labels that can shrink or slide off the package during washing, but remain intact during prior stages of the package’s life cycle. With good return rates, reusable packaging has a more powerful positive impact than mechanical recycling, composting or the potential for chemical recycling as we currently understand it.

This also applies to previously mentioned concept of sustainable sourcing. While a move from plastics to more sustainable materials such as corrugate, paperboard and others created from natural fibers addresses current challenges, it will create new issues down the road if packaging and procurement pros aren’t able identify more sustainable sources for materials. 

If you’d like to discuss how these and other sustainable packaging topics featured at Sustainability in Packaging might affect your brand, get in touch. The sustainability experts at Adept Group have experience helping brands in all industries identify meaningful steps they can take to enhance the sustainability of their packaging, and they’re ready to help you reach your goals.