Sustainable Packaging Strategies Need to Deliver More Than a Headline

At the end of last year, Gartner published its latest Predicts 2022: Supply Chain Strategy. One of the predicts was focused on sustainable packaging. It centered specifically on the gap between ambitious goals and the ability for organizations to not only achieve authentic sustainability targets – but more urgently – to achieve their short-term goals.

Sustainable packaging initiatives, as we know them today, are still very new. The first set of modern goals were initiated around 2018. Much of the corporate, academic and government alignment was driven by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and the EMF New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. One of EMF’s key visions for the future of sustainable packaging is the commitment to 100% of plastic packaging being recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Why do we predict so many sustainable packaging commitments will be missed? There are several contributing factors:

Trendy or broad goals that are not founded in science or the existing infrastructure.
Common, or broad goals, although well intentioned, put organizations in a perilous situation in which they may spend excessive resources striving for a target that is not feasible, need to back track on commitments or, worse, get themselves unknowingly into a situation where they will be called out for green washing. Watch outs include goals centered around all packaging being compostable, biodegradable, reusable or recyclable. Another concerning trend involves organizations committing to targets such as being “plastic neutral” or “all our packaging will be sustainable.” These examples lack definition, can’t be measured and don’t have a feasible path to implementation.

The eco-system for sustainable packaging is currently limited, which poses significant constraints.
Globally the recycling infrastructure for collection, sorting, processing and end markets for many forms of packaging is limited – primarily due to economics. Consumers, although seeking to be more sustainable, still lean toward convenience and lowest cost. Suppliers of packaging materials have yet to fully invest in the capability to supply the quantities of sustainable packaging materials that brand owners desire. When it comes to reusable packaging, EMF notes that we have seen a slow uptake with only about 2% of packaging being reusable with many more pilots in play than permanent applications.

Lack of accessible and discernable recycling and packaging specification data.
Recyclability claims are often hampered by a lack of data to substantiate whether a specific material or format gets recycled in practice. Organizations need to determine not only what needs to be true for a package to be technically recyclable, but also if there is data available to support a claim. Looking internally, many organizations do not have access to fundamental data on their packaging specifications to set or validate goals. Too often, packaging specs are held by suppliers or sit in legacy systems that require Excel and manual intervention to view material use in aggregate. The first step to any sustainable packaging strategy should be data gathering across packaging material types, forms and categories.

Looking forward: Global Packaging Legislation Will Increase the Need for Data Transparency and Accuracy

Last year marked a watershed moment for sustainable packaging legislation. While over 40 jurisdictions around the world employ a form of EPR for packaging, the United States saw its first packaging EPR legislations to pass in Maine and Oregon in 2021. The United Kingdom passed legislation to introduce a Plastic Packaging Tax that takes effect on April 1, 2022. Italy and Spain also have plastic tax legislation in progress which is expected to take effect later this year or next.

Charting a Path to Making Sustainable Packaging Goals a Reality

Sustainable packaging has progressed greatly in just a few short years, but aspirational goals will require greater diligence.

It really starts with data. We need to have internal data on the packaging that we manufacture and sell and for the packaging that we purchase. Second, we need complete transparency on how our packaging fits into existing and near-term recycling infrastructure. Characteristics such as package size, color, material combination and sales location can’t be overlooked.

To establish a viable roadmap, identify packaging: 1) that can be optimized in its current form, 2) that requires being changed to a sustainable alternative and 3) that requires longer term investments such as infrastructure or new business models.