The future of sustainable packaging is as bright as it has ever been. Consumers are demanding a more sustainable lifestyle and companies are responding with new innovations. There is no denying that the world is changing. There has been a huge shift in the culture from being materialistic to one that values sustainability and quality of life over quantity of goods. Packaging has not been exempt from this change, as we are seeing the emergence of sustainable packaging options for businesses all over the globe.
It will be challenging but rewarding to see how we can use our resources more efficiently in the coming years. We have many paths ahead, some are easier than others, but it’s up to us as a society what path we take. Let’s look at a few trends in sustainable packaging that are not going away any time soon.
The Circular Economy
Companies are rethinking the linear economy because it is not sustainable. One way this is happening is by implementing the circular economy idea that focuses on resource management first before considering economic or environmental factors. This entails designing packaging so that materials – come back into circulation again at the end of the life cycle instead of being incinerated or buried. Recycling can also help support the circular economy. Traditionally mechanical recycling was the only way to recover, repurpose, and reuse a material but now advanced (or chemical) recycling is coming onto the scene. The processes allow traditionally unrecyclable materials, like polystyrene or multilayer films, to be broken down into their monomers or even to molecules to be used as non-virgin feedstock.
When evaluating a circular approach it is important to analyze the impacts of additional transportation as well as necessary cleaning cycles. With these new recycling technologies, it is important to use mechanical recycling and advanced recycling where it makes sense for each material. Mechanical recycling is already working well for materials such as PET, aluminum, and paperboard. Advanced recycling would not be a good option for these materials, but would work well with polystyrene and other traditionally non-recyclable films.
Another way forward is by designing packages that use biomaterials. An example is cellulose fiber which can break down in a matter of weeks or months depending on the surrounding conditions. Using biomaterials often decreases a companys’ reliance on fossil fuels. Some biomaterials are chemically identical to their fossil fuel counterparts, in these cases the biomaterial can be recycled where the fossil fuel based counterpart is accepted. For example, BioPET is chemically identical to fossil fuel based PET thus can be recycled where fossil fuel based PET is accepted.
While using biomaterials may reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, it may increase other environmental impacts such as water use. Trayak encourages companies to evaluate biomaterials (moreover any packaging change) from a holistic approach. In addition, biomaterials may lack the performance attributes of their fossil fuel based counterparts. Considering the role your packaging plays in protecting your product is one step to a packaging change.
Flexible packaging combines paper, plastic, aluminum, and film to make bags. The raw materials used are much less compared to their rigid packaging counterparts, but it usually still provides the necessary protection for products.
Flexible packaging often extends the shelf life of food products. It can be opened at point-of-sale and usually resealed after use, so customers do not need to store their groceries in other containers or put them in disposable bags.
The recyclability of flexible packaging is low. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, flexible bags are recycled at a rate of roughly 13% in the United States. This percentage reflects the current reprocessor and materials recovery facility infrastructure capabilities in the U.S., though technology is continually improving.
The journey to sustainable packaging is a multi-faceted and unpredictable one. It will only be resolved by teams from various industries, civic leaders, and consumers coming together as well as a change in government services, recycling infrastructure, and processes. It’s unclear what the future of sustainable packaging will be as new concepts are still being worked on and improved. However, we won’t see the above trends go away anytime soon. Brands are quickly voicing their commitments to sustainable packaging and making big-picture changes. Shifting focus towards the future, it’s safe to predict that more companies will transition towards creating solutions for sustainable packaging.
Trayak has been helping leading brands of all sizes make data-driven sustainability decisions for over 10 years. If you would like to learn more about our tools and services please contact us.