The trend towards sustainable packaging is clear. Although most brands do not create sustainable packaging out of mere consciousness, consumer demand is seriously shifting towards less, smarter and more sustainable packaging, which pushes the brands to choose a sustainable alternative when designing new product packaging. The media has had a huge role in demonising packaging and decreasing the credibility of the packaging industry.
This alteration in opinion is a huge advantage for the planet, but it is not the only beneficiary. Although it is a common belief that sustainable living is more expensive, when it comes to packaging, sustainability is very interesting. Very financially interesting in terms of cost saving and new income sources. Product packaging makes up to 40% of the total product cost. According to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the other hand, rethinking packaging into sustainable alternatives is even a $10+ billion innovation opportunity.
Nestlé, Unilever, Waitrose, are a few of the many brands that are trying out compostable, plant-based, reusable or even edible packaging. The trend is starting to become widespread throughout the industry.
However, there is a lot of packaging that remains unseen and hidden from the consumer; the tertiary packaging also known as transport packaging. This packaging includes palettes, plastic glued wrapping or Styrofoam to protect the merchandise. These are kinds of packaging that have not yet been criticized and publicly discussed as they remain unseen by the “normal” consumer. Obviously, when you see the excess plastic packaging your yogurt, fruits or vegetables come into in the supermarket aisles, it is easy to be prostrated.
However, there is a whole business beyond what the final customer can observe. From the packaging of the initial product to the pallets carrying the boxes of your favourite product (completely wrapped in plastic wrappings to hold all the boxes together), everything has been packaged to be transported, stored or simply to look attractive to the final customer.
Innovation is possible though, and going back to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report, it is actually a very interesting market to look into. Products have already been developed. For example, Printela Ltd., a Lithuanian company, recently developed a compostable film or flexible packaging. Although these words are very technical, it basically is the plastic film used to keep products together mentioned above. “This packaging will turn to biomass in 12 weeks in a home composter. It is made from renewable sources, the film is a natural, environmentally responsible product.” Or, take-back schemes are possible, where the used packaging goes back to the supplier ones they have been used or emptied.
Some countries are already thinking about such take-back-schemes in an attempt to meet the Paris-agreements targets set in 2015. According to National Geographic, Morocco, The Gambia, India, Costa Rica and the European Union are the ones having implemented the best, most efficient way to deal with carbon emissions and waste management.
However, we are a long way from the 195 countries. If we want to see real change, countries need to establish global rules and companies throughout the world need to produce packaging that has cohesive production schemes. Packaging that can be produced on one side of the world and then composted on the other without having to be dumped in landfills. At the end of the day, the scandal that had uncovered the EU’s waste management dirty secrets (i.e. sending their excess waste to Asia), is proof that the amount of packaging being produced is exceeding the amount we can manage.
Whether companies decide to reduce the amount of packaging they use for their products or whether they decide to simply change the materials of the packaging itself, what is clear is that things need to change. Whether the reason for these companies or countries to change is the planet or their wallets, the consequence will inevitably be a better outcome: a healthier planet and a more efficient, less wasteful and more respected industry.
Co-founder at What About Waste
Student at Columbia University