Sustainable packaging’s quest for greater commercial viability
Image: Notpla Limited
For consumer goods producers, the benefits of adopting sustainable packaging have been widely acknowledged, growing from an obscure, societally-driven niche to a leading priority across entire value chains. Seeking to reduce a company’s carbon footprint and minimising its product’s impact on the natural environment, sustainable packaging focuses on materials that are renewable, recyclable, or biodegradable, holding considerable consumer appeal and meeting ever expanding regulations and bans. But mass adoption has remained elusive to date, with a lack of scale holding back a faster transition.
According to a survey conducted by Future Market Insights (FMI), cost remains a significant hurdle preventing smaller brands from investing in sustainable packaging, while packaging suppliers and converters face eroding margins due to high material prices. That said, FMI estimates that the market for sustainable packaging will cross the US$500 billion annual mark by 2030, driven by manufacturer, consumer, and regulatory demands. Within the next decade, sustainable packaging will no longer be a choice, but a necessity says the firm.
On 28 March, FMI hosted a virtual roundtable, “Making Sustainable Packaging Commercially Viable,” with three experts weighing in on the challenges that are holding back greater adoption at a faster rate.
“Sustainability is no longer marketing jargon or a buzzword anymore,” explained Ismail Sutaria, chief research analyst at FMI, noting that “businesses are rapidly developing and using packaging materials that not only increase the life cycle inventory, but also reduce the ecological footprint.” He notes that the significant momentum gained by the concept of the circular economy has grabbed the attention of numerous packaging giants as well as governments, responding to the realities of packaging waste and its impact on the environment.
Sutaria sees successful sustainable packaging as balancing several key attributes: low carbon footprint, lightweight, environmentally friendly, fully circular, higher rates of recycling, and perhaps most importantly to packaged food and beverage producers, better shelf life for the products themselves.
Missing currently from the advances in the sector, despite continuous innovations in materials and substrates, and a growing number of consumer product rollouts, are a high degree of adoption; to achieve a successful sustainable packaging eco-system, widespread commercialisation is required. To their credit, the food and, in particular, beverage industries are the global leaders in adopting sustainable packaging.
While sustainable packaging designs for any given product can save certain costs—reduced shipping weights for example—the cost of switching from a previous format can be quite expensive. Sustainable packaging can only be commercially viable through mass scale adoption, Sutaria stresses.
An interesting wrinkle, he notes, is that consumer perception of recyclability doesn’t always align with the actual carbon impact of packaging. Production of PET beverage containers, for example, might be lower in greenhouse gas impact, but aluminium cans have the edge in recycling rates.
In terms of consumer shopping behavior, Millennials are by far the most aggressive generation to date when it comes to preferring companies with “purpose,” such as reducing pollution or waste, and have the highest interest in choosing products with eco-friendly, sustainable packaging.
In short, Sutaria says that the higher perceived costs (led by the inability to pass on costs to consumer and the higher cost of sustainable materials), combined with inadequate recycling infrastructure and complex government regulations, are all deterrents to mass scale adoption of sustainable packaging. Collaboration across regions in regard to tracing, waste collection, and sorting and recycling systems is the missing key in what’s limiting the success of sustainable packaging and in achieving circularity
Robert Flores, VP of sustainability at Berry Global, Inc., an Indiana, USA-based manufacturer of plastic packaging products at over 265 regional facilities worldwide and 56 years of experience, said his firm sees the future of plastics moving to recycling and renewable. Mechanically recycled plastic can achieve significant energy use savings versus production of virgin plastics, says Flores, while the production of bio-plastics from renewable resources such as crops rather than fossil fuels could potentially move that process toward net-zero carbon emissions. Lightweighting—reducing the amount of plastic used in redesigned packaging—shrinks not only carbon footprints but also customer cost while improving circularity, he adds.
Tristan Kaye, commercial director of Notpla Limited, founded in 2014, explained that his firm focuses on single-use packaging in the consumer space, challenging long-standing conventions about packaging. The East London-based startup has rapidly developed an innovative portfolio of advanced, all-natural packaging products made from seaweed and plants that are naturally biodegradable and home-compostable. Some are entirely edible and impart no flavour, such as beverage “blobs” or dissolvable instant coffee sachets. Kaye said, however, Nopla is particularly focused on industrialising and scaling its seaweed-based coating as an alternative to plastic inner liners on fiber-based packaging, allowing the entire package to be composted. Other uses are in earlier stages of R&D.
Kaye noted that some other newer biodegradable products, such as PHA, PLA and PBAT are actually seeing prices increase due to changing EU classification standards. “In the EU, there is now a common definition around single-use plastic,” said Kaye, the two key aspects being it must be a natural polymer and not chemically modified. As such, Kaye said that PHA and similar products are now being classified as plastics in the EU. “So even though as we scale as a business and we’re trying to bring our costs down, we also see that other materials are getting more expensive through the role of regulation,” he noted.
- E Edward ‘Ted’ Hoyt has more than two decades of experience as a trade magazine editor and freelance writer, authoring many articles in the premium coffee, spirits and cigar industries, among others.