Focus on sustainability in packaging intensifies

Brand owners embrace environmentally friendly materials and practices. By Jorge Izquierdo

Interest in sustainability continues to intensify among consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, contract packagers, suppliers, and OEMs. In fact, sustainability is one of four key priorities identified in Challenges and Opportunities for Packaging and Processing Operations, a report published in October 2022 by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, based in Herndon, Virginia.

Driving forces include concerns about climate change, carbon footprint, waste, ocean plastic litter, and single-use plastics; a desire to establish a circular economy; regulatory efforts worldwide; and an interest in reusable, renewable, recyclable, and recycled-content packaging and products.

An indication of the level of concern about single-use plastics is an advance notice of proposed rulemaking by the General Services Administration (GSA) in the United States (US), an administrative agency that provides supplies and workplaces for federal employees. The proposed rule, Single-Use Plastics and Packaging, would regulate the use of plastics consumed in both packaging and shipping as well as other single-use plastics the agency buys. Comments were due in September 2022 and are being reviewed to determine how the rule will be finalised.

A concept that Europe embraced decades ago, extended producer responsibility (EPR), is gaining favour in the US and other countries. In the US, EPR laws have been passed in the states of Oregon, Maine, California, and Colorado, and regulators are working on implementation. EPR laws are pending in several other US states. At the same time, industry attitudes toward EPR have shifted from negative to positive with groups like the Plastics Industry Association now supporting the concept. The American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, a coalition of packaging industry entities dedicated to improving packaging and the environment and known as AMERIPEN, plans to present a series of webinars about EPR requirements in the US. The series began in February and continues monthly through July 2023.

Globally, there are new EPR requirements in India, Japan, and the United Kingdom (UK). In the UK, data collection has begun in preparation for meeting EPR requirements in 2024.

Progress toward more sustainable packaging

The path to increased sustainability is not necessarily smooth. Hurdles fall into four categories: technical issues, productivity concerns, cost, and environmental awareness. To transition to more sustainable packaging materials, stakeholders must overcome a host of challenges such as security of supply, cost, quality of materials, buy-in from customers and marketing, production efficiency problems, the time and money required to carry out the experimentation and testing needed to ensure the new materials will be successful, and the learning curve involved with implementation.

Stakeholders rely on a variety of tactics to make packaging more sustainable. This includes commitments to recyclable, recycled-content, and/or reusable packaging; replacement of multilayer materials with more easily recycled mono-material structures; interest in biodegradable, compostable, and renewable substrates; source reduction efforts, particularly transitions from rigid to flexible packaging; and carbon footprint reduction.

Materials receiving attention include polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), and bio-based polymers. PHA is a renewable plant-based polyester that is biodegradable in soil or marine environments and compostable.

PVA also is biodegradable and compostable, and nontoxic in land and ocean environments. In some cases, it can serve as an alternative to ethylene vinyl alcohol barrier resin. As an extrusion coating on paper or part of a paper lamination, PVA provides strength and a barrier to oxygen, oil, and grease. Its solubility in water makes the resulting paper structures compatible with paper recycling streams.

Bio-based polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and polypropylene (PP) are derived from feedstocks based on renewable plants like sugarcane but are equivalent to traditional resins in properties and performance.

On the recycling side, new technologies for the separation and recovery of materials are being developed. This includes marking schemes to expedite sorting for recycling, thermochemical recycling processes, and the collection and processing of plastic waste from the oceans. Meanwhile, demand continues to rise for packaging materials with recycled content. A growing number of plastics with post-consumer recycled content has received a letter of no objection from the US Food and Drug Administration for use in food-contact applications. As a result, it should be relatively easy to source PET, high-density PE, low-density PE, linear-low-density PE, and PP with various levels of recycled content.

To help consumers recycle packaging properly, many US brand owners are adopting How2Recycle labels. Established in 2012 by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the How2Recycle programme seeks to standardise recycling labelling, divert recyclables from landfills, and educate consumers.

A successful transition to more sustainable packaging depends on considering sustainability from the beginning. Nerida Kelton, vice president Sustainability & Save Food at the World Packaging Organisation (WPO), explains, “to apply recyclable packaging design, a certain fundamental knowledge of sorting and recycling processes is necessary. Packaging must, therefore, be suitable for state-of-the-art sorting and recycling processes in addition to its basic functions (eg, storage, transport, product protection, product presentation, and convenience).”

Guidelines from WPO help designers consider these factors early in the product development process and ensure the resulting packaging poses no issues when recycled in existing streams. WPO’s “Global Packaging Design for Recycling Guide” is now available in seven languages with the recent addition of Arabic, Spanish, and Czech translations to the existing offerings in English, German, Georgian, and Hungarian. Ayman Sbeih, chairman of the Palestinian Federation of Paper & Packaging Industries and coordinator of the Arabic translation, said, “Translating the Global Packaging Design for Recycling Guide into Arabic was extremely important to ensure that we take steady steps based on scientific foundations to achieve a circular economy. This will contribute to addressing challenges that face the world in terms of climate change, the environment, and the preservation of natural resources.”

Beyond packaging

For many beverage brand owners, sustainability initiatives extend far beyond packaging to include commitments to zero waste to landfill, net zero greenhouse gas emissions, energy/water conservation, and adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power.

Other associated goals involve corporate citizenship and include ethical business practices, diversity, and Fair Chance hiring, which provides employment for those with criminal records. Other tactics include compliance with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and participation in organizations such as the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and the Science Based Targets initiative associated with the Paris Climate Agreement.

  • Jorge Izquierdo is vice president, market development at The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, which organises the Pack Expo portfolio of packaging and processing shows. This year’s Pack Expo will take place in Las Vegas, Nevada, 11-13 September. For more information, visit: To learn more about PMMI, visit:

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