Over the past few years, single serve packaging has taken over the shelves and the market catering to the active, busy consumer. There are various reasons for smaller products popularity, such as an overall increase in 1 to 2 person households, prevalence of snacking, and concern over portion control as well as minimizing food waste. With smaller portions comes the need for smaller packages which ultimately can increase the amount of packaging and wasted space on a pallet when shipping the product. We will explore the sustainability trade-offs of single-serve vs bulk packaging.
Single-serve packaging refers to a smaller package that typically holds one portion of the food or beverage product while bulk packaging refers to a larger package that holds several portions of the product. Multipacks can also be categorized as single-serve packaging because they consist of multiple smaller packages within a larger container such as a multipack of various bagged snacks.
To the consumer, single-serve packaging is appealing with its convenience which is becoming increasingly important as snacking between meals increases and incorporate eating into busy schedules is more prevalent. This goes hand in hand with the trend toward healthier, nutritious snacking which can also be portion controlled in the single serve packaging. With the smaller packages also comes a potential decrease in the growing food waste problem.
Contrastingly, bulk packaging offers consumers a way to buy a large amount of food at one time decreasing the number of trips to the store. Buying products in this way can also prove to be less expensive, but this should be evaluated on a per product basis. Typically bulk packaging is more recyclable than the single serve packages because larger containers can be sorted and processed. Bulk packaging also uses less materials, resources, and energy than single serve packaging (per product) because it is one large container rather than a large container consisting of multiple smaller packages. This packaging format allows consumers to divide the product into reusable containers within their homes reducing waste generated as well. Ultimately, this results in less packaging waste.
So, which one is better? Here is a table summarizing the pros and cons of single serve and bulk packaging discussed above.
Life Cycle Thinking
This discussion highlights the idea of life cycle thinking and incorporating all phases into your package design. Even leaving out one of these phases from the environmental analysis can change the result. For example, if we omit the end of life phase in the discussion between single serve and bulk packaging the food waste problem is not considered. Single serve packaging allows consumers to buy smaller quantities of food which could reduce the amount of wasted food as smaller containers are easier to finish than a bulk container.
Many resources such as energy, water, and processes emitting harmful greenhouse gasses and consuming fossil fuels are needed to produce food, not to mention the energy that goes into packaging and delivering the product to the consumer.
If this food is thrown away, these resources are wasted and the harmful environmental impacts could have been avoided.
However, bulk packaging still offers benefits in reducing packaging waste, increasing recyclability, and improving cube utilization which could decrease shipping costs ultimately saving the consumer and the company money. This format of packaging can reduce material, manufacture, distribution, and end of life phase impacts allowing for a more sustainable packaging system across the board.
Ultimately, it comes down to strategic package design. Single serve packaging is certainly taking over the market, but there are sustainability concerns because of the increased packaging required. This concern can be addressed by designing an easily recyclable single serve package and communicating the recyclability to consumers through the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s How2Recycle labeling system. Bulk packaging appeals to an environmentally conscious lifestyle by saving the consumer trips to the store as well as reducing the packaging material needed. When designing this type of package, evaluate the product shelf life and the feasibility of providing the product in bulk quantities.
With many tradeoffs to consider, designers and engineers are turning to Life Cycle Assessment or LCA to evaluate alternate package formats from a sustainability standpoint.
How can industry leading LCA tools help?
Trayak’s COMPASS and EcoScore solutions allow brands to model and compare various packaging systems. In this case, a multipack containing single serve packages versus a bulk package. Analyzing package life cycle impacts, alongside metrics such as product shelf life, packaging recovery rate, cube utilization, and material waste, allow companies to visualize tradeoffs, prioritize sustainability goals, and make data-driven packaging decisions. This leads to optimized package designs and happy consumers; whether a brand has chosen to deliver products using single serve or bulk packages.