Sustainable Packaging Trends: Green and Growing

A recycle sign is printed on brown cardboard paper texture background.

As consumers continue to clamor for more environmental responsibility in the products they purchase, the packaging manufacturers use is becoming as important as what’s inside. In 2019 research by Packaging Digest, almost a third of respondents said their concern about the environmental impact of plastic packaging is as high as it could possibly be.

There’s good reason for that concern. According to the EPA, the United States generates 80 million tons of packaging waste each year. Plastic waste is among the most detrimental to the environment since it can remain in its original form in the ocean for hundreds of years. With one million single-use water bottles sold around the world every minute, it’s not surprising that a World Economic Forum report predicts that oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

The Power of Company Sustainability Efforts

Manufacturers have demonstrated that they are equally concerned about the impact their packaging has on the environment, but there are also pragmatic business reasons for making sustainable packaging a priority. Research by manufacturers solutions provider Jabil showed that the top three drivers for companies’ sustainability efforts are genuine environmental concern, brand reputation and consumer demand.

As more customers become involved in efforts to preserve the environment, they are attracted to companies of like values. A Unilever study showed that one-third of consumers choose to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.

Customers are backing their environmental concerns with their wallets, and that could translate to more sales for those companies willing to put time and resources into using sustainable packaging. According to a study by IBM and the National Retail Federation, 70 percent of shoppers would pay 35 percent more for sustainable purchases, such as recycled or eco-friendly goods.

In response to consumer demand, some manufacturers are moving away from traditional plastic toward other sustainable packaging solutions that use recyclable, biodegradable, refillable and even edible materials.

A Push Toward 100 Percent Recyclable Packaging

Across industries, recycled packaging materials are taking center stage as more and more manufacturers work toward a vision of plastic never becoming waste. For example, as opposed to other water bottle companies which use only 6 to 7 percent of recycled plastic, Evian is working on making 100 percent of its bottles from recycled materials by 2025.

In the toy industry, Mattel is on track this year to switch to sugarcane-based plastics to manufacture its Fisher-Price Rock-a-Stack, which will also be packaged in 100 percent recycled or sustainably sourced material. The effort is part of its commitment to achieve 100 percent recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastics materials in its products and packaging by 2030.

Regardless of the type of industry, advancements in papermaking technology allow for all businesses to access corrugated containers made from recycled containers that have the strength of new boxes. The lightweight material minimizes freight and handling costs, allowing for fewer trucks, less fuel and lower emissions. Because of such benefits, Packaging Gateway predicts that the use of corrugated packaging will be among the top packaging trends of 2020.

Looking to the Earth for Solutions

Beyond expanding the use of 100 percent recycled materials, manufacturers are also looking at plant-based materials, such as mushrooms, as well as biodegradable eco-friendly packaging alternatives. For example, Evocative Design’s high-performance packaging solution, Mushroom® Packaging, is cost-competitive with conventional foams, yet 100 percent home compostable.

Beauty product manufacturer L’Oreal teamed up with Albea to focus on other biodegradable options. After introducing a recyclable, compostable, paper-based pump bottle designed for use in the shower, the company is planning to launch the first carton-based cosmetic tube this year, replacing most of the plastic with a new bio-based, paper-like material.

Refillable Packaging—Reusing Rather Than Recycling

In another approach to sustainable packaging, manufacturers are using product containers that can be returned, filled and reused. Working with a variety of brands from Crest to Tropicana to Dove, recycling company TerraCycle offers a service called Loop which provides containers that can be refilled and delivered to consumers’ homes without the need to clean or recycle them. Refillable options, such as Loop, allow manufacturers to cut costs and develop more brand loyalty through their return programs.

Edible Packaging That’s Safe to Eat

Companies have also been thinking outside the box, working to replace plastic packaging with packaging made of edible materials. Research Nester reported that North America will be the largest market for edible packaging due to the increase in demand for packaged food. The top spot in this market is held by food and beverage manufacturers.

Sustainability start-up Notpla is among the edible packaging pioneers. It developed single-gulp Ooho containers for beverages and sauces that come in flexible packaging made from a combination of seaweed and plants. Consumers can pop them in their mouths or the packages will biodegrade in four to six weeks.

Edible packaging offers convenience for consumers on the go. Mono-Sol partnered with Nature’s Bounty to develop food-grade, water-soluble film packets of protein powder which dissolve in a shaker bottle of water within seconds.

With options that can meet the busy lifestyle of today’s consumers, it appears the edible packaging market is poised for growth. Brand Packaging estimates the trend will extend to edible plastic film fruit coverings, potato-based wrappings for ice cream bars, sandwiches, bagels and cookies and even compostable wine bottles.

Leading the Way on Sustainable Packaging

With the broad range of available sustainable packaging options, more companies are making a commitment to reduce one-time use plastics. In fact, more than 400 organizations have signed up for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and UN Environment Programme’s vision of a circular economy in which plastics never become waste.

In late 2019, Coca-Cola unveiled the world’s first-ever sample bottle using recovered and recycled marine plastics. Rollout is planned to begin in 2020 as part of its goal to make all consumer packaging 100 percent recyclable by 2025.

On the retail front, Walmart is looking beyond its own operations to extend its zero waste operations to its entire supply chain. But the commitment to eco-friendly packaging options is not restricted to industry giants. Small and medium-sized companies are also reducing their carbon footprint with Earth-friendly packaging options such as biodegradable packaging peanuts, corrugated bubble wrap or air pillows made of recycled materials.

The Benefits of Going Green

The technology behind sustainable packaging options will continue to grow. In fact, according to Grand View Research, the global green packaging market is expected to hit $237.8 billion by 2024. These options will continue to impact how consumers use products as well as how manufacturers approach packaging, providing benefits for both.

For companies, going green could translate to lower shipping costs, an improved brand image and the potential for increased sales. Consumers benefit as well from less product packaging waste and fulfillment of their personal desire for eco-friendly products. Most importantly, both manufacturers and consumers can feel good about doing their part to help save the planet for future generations. That translates to a win for everyone.

The views expressed by the authors are not necessarily those of Fifth Third Bank, National Association, and are solely the opinions of the authors. This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional services by Fifth Third Bank, National Association or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, and are provided without any warranty whatsoever. Deposit and credit products provided by Fifth Third Bank, National Association. Member FDIC.