Sustainability takes centre stage in packaging 

Experts stress sustainability's pivotal role, going beyond rhetoric to encompass legal mandates and environmental imperatives in packaging, Liz Newmark reports. 

Sustainable packaging goes beyond the product, optimizing the entire supply chain. Credit: Dr. Victor Wong via Shutterstock

Sustainability is not only a marketing buzzword in the packaging sector, but also a legal and environmental necessity, even if it costs more, packaging experts have told Packaging Gateway.  

Notably, making recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is more expensive than virgin PET, and due to “limited availability and the high cost of recycled content,” PepsiCo used more virgin plastic than planned in 2022 according to its ESG [environmental, social and governance] 2022 report released earlier this year (2023).   

Notwithstanding, “You should pursue sustainability at any cost,” Jane Bickerstaffe, packaging expert and director of the UK Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) from 1990 to 2017, told Packaging Gateway.  

But “just decreasing the amount of packaging used or excessive lightweighting is not the answer as this may result in more waste – particularly food waste – elsewhere,” she said.  

“Packaging suppliers, brands and retailers have done lots to reduce the impact of packaging in product supply chains. Now they need to do more to ensure that any reduction in packaging or increase in recyclability does not increase energy or water use,” added Ms Bickerstaffe.  

Market growth and sustainability commitments 

Certainly, the global sustainable packaging market is booming, according to Canada- and India-based market research providers Precedence Research (2).   

It reached USD101.49 billion in 2022 and is projected to generate around USD 211.51 billion in annual sales by 2032.   

Wim Geens, managing director of Belgium’s household packaging recovery organisation Fost Plus, which offers companies nationwide the means to fulfil their regulatory waste disposal requirements, agreed it was “everybody’s role to preserve increasingly scarce resources and materials.  

European [Union - EU] legislative frameworks”, such as the packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR) proposed last November (2022) or the 2019 single use plastics directive, now coming into effect. 

He said the industry needed to “respond to that need with ambitious targets regarding packaging reduction, the use of recycled materials in packaging and collection and recycling of used packaging”.    

Joachim Quoden, managing director of the international Extended Producer Responsibility Alliance (EXPRA), said legislation will stay the strongest driver for sustainability, with EU proposed legislation and programmes under discussion targeting a deadline of 2030 insisting that only recyclable packaging can be put on the EU market.  

Companies also aim to meet global targets like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (the 17 SDGs including notably goal 12 on ‘responsible production and consumption’) adopted by the UN General Assembly’s 193 countries in 2015.   

“We work hard so that our business contributes to the SDGs,” a Nestlé spokesperson said. Nestlé’s packaging sustainability strategy aims to ensure that by 2025, more than 95% of packaging will be designed for recycling, while its use of virgin plastics will be cut by a third: “At year-end 2022, globally 81.9% of plastic packaging is designed for recycling and we cut virgin plastic 10.5% compared to the 2018 baseline.”   

Nestlé’s drive for sustainability includes using recyclable paper for Quality Street and Smarties, compostable packaging for its coffee capsules/pods, not to mention phasing out some 4.5 billion plastic straws per year, replacing them with paper varieties.   

Just a few other company initiatives include Starbucks’ drive to use more recycled content in cups, Keurig Dr Pepper’s aim to replace virgin plastic with recycled content and Calvin Klein’s goal to achieve 100% sustainable and ethically sourced packaging by 2025.

Government role and economic factors in sustainability 

The Nestlé spokesperson added that governments should enable investments in better packaging design and well-performing collection-sorting-recycling infrastructure: “Public authorities need to contribute too, with forward-looking, innovation-open holistic policies.”   

The company also supports implementation of well-designed mandatory extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, that exist in 65 countries and are under development in 44 others, noting Belgium’s national EPR scheme includes placing coffee capsules and flexible packaging in a ‘blue bag’ for plastic, beverage carton and metal waste.   

Fost Plus’s Geens agreed governments have a responsibility to set the legislative framework via EPR: “Collective solutions like Fost Plus ensure companies reach their sustainability goals by stimulating responsible return and/or recycling practices.”    

In addition, “We see a clear shift from a legislative point of view and market demand from recycling to prevention and reuse. Recycling alone will not solve the worldwide waste issue, especially as not every country has the same high-performing recycling chain as we do in Belgium,” where recycling household packaging saved 875,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2022, according to Geens.  

Resource-efficient packaging must also make sense from an economic as well as environmental point of view: “Fost Plus members pay a ‘green dot’ rate based on the amount and type of packaging put on the market.  

The more difficult it is to recycle, the higher the rate. Packaging compatible with recycling systems will be cheaper for industry and this will be reflected in the retail price,” said Geens. 

Like Bickerstaffe, he emphasised packaging always has a function: to protect the product, prevent food waste and ensure safe transport. Resource-efficient packaging depends on that role. “Sometimes resource efficiency can be achieved by making packaging lighter (using less materials), sometimes by avoiding multi-material packaging (to improve recycling).”   

The aim should be, “sustainable packaging that is CO2 positive and circular. Only resource efficient but not recyclable or having a high CO2 impact will not help. We might even have to make packaging heavier, so it is recyclable but keeps its properties and performance,” said Quoden.  

That said, Quoden stressed while industry may continue to strive for sustainability – consumers will only follow suit if they can afford sustainability packaged products:  

“If a consumer does not know how to pay living costs, I do not think he/she will care much about resource efficiency,” and buy the cheapest product, regardless of how it is packaged."