Five Trends Shaping the Future of Sustainable Packaging
Looking back through the multitude of innovations showcased at the recent Pack Expo, one major influencing factor stood out from the rest: sustainability. From lively sessions and discussions of the “circular economy” to introductions of innovative materials, processes and products, the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry is embracing fresh approaches to packaging that streamline operations, meet customer demands and create a healthier, more sustainable world.
Here’s a look at five sustainability trends that are shaping the future of packaging.
1. The Circular Economy Sets a High Bar for Sustainability
Sustainable manufacturing is a large umbrella that covers efficiency in manufacturing processes, measurement of energy and material use and the environmental impacts of each aspect of the product lifecycle.
One area that is driving both accountability and innovation in sustainability is the concept of circular economy – that is, keeping manufactured products out of landfills and incinerators. It involves not only what happens when a product reaches the end of its useful life, but also how manufacturers make important decisions about product and packaging design, materials used, product use/reuse and durability, operations and supply chains among other things.
With a circular economy, materials are not discarded, but brought back into the economy through a variety of means. Source: NIST
Inspired by a combination of regulation, consumer demand and concern for the health of the planet, the circular economy is driving manufacturers to innovate. Multiple organizations, including NIST and ASTM, are actively involved in setting standards that define what the circular economy entails and providing guidelines and support for manufacturers in implementing sustainability initiatives that both comply with regulations and support market development.
2. EPR Legislation Drive Accountability and Innovation
Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation is one of the most significant trends impacting manufacturers in the drive toward a circular economy. EPR puts the onus on manufacturers, particularly those in CPG, to be accountable for the materials they use in packaging. It specifies that manufacturers make sure their packaging is recyclable, and if they fall short, they’ll be charged fees for the use of non-recyclable materials. From an incentive point of view, the fees are an obvious stick; but EPR is also dangling carrots – the collected fees provide a funding source for building out modernized recycling infrastructure across the U.S. and they’re having a ripple effect of driving consumer-pleasing packaging innovation (and the significant marketing opportunities that surround it).
Four states – California, Colorado, Maine and Oregon – have already enacted EPR laws, and a number of other states are considering them. EPR could be a game-changer for many manufacturers, especially those that currently use multi-materials that can’t be recycled.
A great example of this is something most of us use every day: toothpaste. 400 million toothpaste tubes are discarded every year in the US and at least 1.5 billion are discarded globally. Traditionally, toothpaste tubes are multi-material packaging – constructed of layers of plastic along with a thin layer of aluminum that protects the contents from humidity and oxygen. This multilayer structure makes the recycling of toothpaste tubes all but impossible, and the impact is significant. According to Dow, unrecyclable toothpaste tubes account for an estimated 100,000 tons of waste each year — “roughly the weight of 10 Eiffel Towers.”
Here’s where pressure makes diamonds. A number of brands have already introduced recyclable tube packaging for toothpaste, including GSK, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive and NICE Group. One of the underlying innovations making this possible is the development by Dow and Amcor of a polyethylene (PE) plus ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH). This all-plastic structure doesn’t require aluminum to meet the same standards. It is recyclable and – bonus – it also fosters design innovation with the opportunity to create a futuristic transparent tube that is aesthetically unique and pleasing for customers.
Colgate recently launched recyclable toothpaste tubes that can simply be tossed in curbside recycling bins.
Of course, anything that requires manufacturers to make such major shifts in materials, suppliers and design decisions is a challenge, and EPR legislation has the potential to be complicated if the states differ in how they implement it. In the end, as with most recycling initiatives, it ultimately relies on consumers cleaning and putting the used products and packaging into the recycling bin or taking it to a suitable recycling facility.
3. The Development of Innovative Materials Improves Recycling
Beyond toothpaste tubes, many packaging materials are made with multi-material substrates that make them difficult or impossible to recycle. This is particularly true in the food packaging sector, where film laminates and flexible packaging are often used to preserve freshness.
The Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) is helping manufacturers accelerate the transition to a circular economy by providing design guidance for recyclable materials. Aiming for compliance, companies are developing new technologies that eliminate the use of multi-materials. For example, inspired by APR’s Design Guide, Henkel and Siegwerk explored ways to create new recyclable film laminates that that don’t compromise shelf life. Their innovation? New oxygen barrier coatings that enable recyclable monomaterials to be used in flexible packaging for dry food products.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Eastman are founding members of the newly launched PET Recycling Coalition that aims to improve circularity through the use of more sustainable/recyclable plastics and ensure that recycling processes are in place to facilitate the use of less virgin plastic. Companies like Windmoeller & Hoelscher (W&H) are using circular economy-ready flexible packaging materials for EVOH pet food bags and coffee pouches and are using shrink-film made with 50% post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials.
Plastics used in food packaging are also extending to other product areas. For example, Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics has developed a multi-stage process that contributes to a circular economy for digitally printed pouches. They started with a PE-based barrier food pouch designed for recyclability, then used mechanical recycling and de-inking to create a high-quality, recycling-compatible, machine direction oriented polyethylene (MDO-PE) dishwasher pod pouch that is made with 30% recycled content.
4. Sustainability in Packaging Materials Lowers Carbon Footprint
Global beer company Carlsberg has innovated what it calls the Fibre Bottle made from sustainably sourced wood fiber and plant-based PEF polymer that presents a new, low-carbon packaging alternative to glass bottles. The company says its Generation 2.0 Fibre Bottle already performs better at a number of levels: it’s better for the environment, it performs better than single-use glass bottles in their product life cycle assessment and the PEF polymer retains carbon dioxide better than conventional plastics. And Carlsberg is building on this innovation with a Generation 3.0 bottle that aims for 80% less emissions than production of single-use glass bottles.
German snack maker Hosta is reducing its overall carbon footprint by using smaller, lighter, thinner packaging materials that create less waste and enable the shipment of more goods in the same size trucks and containers. This results in fewer trips and a reduction in fuel required for transportation, lowering the company’s overall carbon footprint.
5. Streamlined Packaging, Reusables and Better Marking Reduces Waste
While some items, like foods and pharmaceuticals, require special packaging to ensure purity and freshness, in many other areas of manufacturing, the type of packaging used is often based on shipping/supply chain requirements (you need a place to put the barcode) and convenience (you need to be able to stack your products efficiently on pallets and shelves). Consumer awareness of “reduce, re-use and recycle” initiatives has elevated the marketability of products that minimize packaging.
According to a new report from Smithers, the reusable/refillable packaging market will reach a value of $53.5 billion in 2027, up from $35.1 billion in 2017. The report identifies four business models for CPGs, including refill-at-home, return-from-home, refill-in-store, and return-in-store. Success for each depends on the product and tailoring each to consumer needs and wants, while employing systems that are as simple as possible.
Other manufacturers are finding that innovations in marking are allowing barcodes to be printed directly on products, in some cases eliminating the need for certain types of packaging. This is enabled by new water-based and food-safe inks that can be printed directly onto foods or consumer products like bar soap and laundry pods.
In other types of manufacturing, such as tires, the inks themselves are also a part of the sustainability innovation cycle. In industries where lowering emissions of VOCs is already a regulatory hurdle, the latest generation of VOC-free inks provide a way to put high-quality marks on products without adding to the overall burden of volatile organic compounds.
And, while often overlooked as a sustainability initiative, another way to reduce waste across the manufacturing supply chain is through the use of high-quality marking on packaging and pallets. High quality marks and labels should endure throughout the packing, shipping and stocking of products in stores. But errors in marking, labels that fall off or aren’t applied in the right place and marks that smear or are otherwise unreadable on pallets of products delivered to large retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Kroger, can result in entire pallets being rejected and products being discarded.
Nowhere is this risk of waste more pronounced than in fresh foods that quickly degrade and must be tossed out if they don’t make it to the shelf on time. This was the case for two California citrus companies affiliated with Sunkist. Porterville Citrus, Inc. (PCI) struggled with the quality of print-and-apply labels on boxes of mandarins that frequently fell off and were often difficult to read or completely illegible. These issues resulted in a carton of mandarins being incorrectly routed to the pallet-loading station and put into the wrong shipment. As a result, the retailer rejected the entire pallet and levied a substantial fine on Porterville for the mistake.
Richard Bagdasarian, Inc., one of California’s largest growers and shippers of table grapes and citrus, experienced similar marking quality control issues that put them at risk for costly quality holds or rejections by major retailers. On a repeated basis, unlabeled and mislabeled boxes forced them to pull their products for re-runs through the production line – losing valuable time and freshness.
Both companies solved these waste issues, increased traceability and created more efficient operations by updating their printing systems with the MPERIA controller and L-Series thermal ink jet (TIJ) and T-Series piezo inkjet (PIJ) printers from Matthews Marking Systems. Porterville reduced consumable expenses by 80%, and Bagdasarian experienced a 30% gain in production capacity while reducing marking errors that could keep products from reaching store shelves.
Sustainability is a process, not an event, and progress is happening at every level through packaging and process innovation. With the movement toward a circular economy, regulatory changes that are pushing the issue and consumers who are demanding more sustainable alternatives, manufacturers have their work cut out for them. But even baby steps can make a big impact.
Upgrading your marking and labeling systems may seem like a drop in that big ocean, but the impact can be significant in helping you ride the sustainable packaging wave. Find out more and get free sample marks on your recyclable substrates to see how Matthews’ MPERIA platform and inkjet print solutions can help you make your packaging more efficient and sustainable.