April 22nd, 2024

A Pathway for Sustainable Packaging

Sustainable packaging is rapidly emerging as a priority for US businesses. At BOLTGROUP more of our clients than ever before are rethinking their packaging systems, driven by a combination of consumer demands and regulatory pressures. Those who choose to embrace the challenge and re-imagine their packaging with a sustainable approach can realize benefits ranging from cost savings and streamlined processes to enhanced brand perception and product differentiation. They also gain access to new markets where packaging regulations are already in place, and most importantly, position themselves for future changes.

For businesses needing to plan moves toward compliance, thinking about how to reduce waste and single-use plastics in packaging will be key. We suggest asking yourself these questions:

  1. What is the value proposition of sustainable packaging for my company?
  2. What metrics should I use to identify opportunities and track progress?
  3. What solutions work best for my business needs?
  4. How does my business communicate with stakeholders and get credit with customers for what we are accomplishing?

The need for sustainable alternatives to single-use (disposable) plastic packaging has never been clearer. Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years. Global plastics production is over 450 million tons and produces more than 1.8 billion tons of carbon emissions. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled; the vast majority ends up in landfills. 22% is burned in open pits or ends up in the environment. In 2019, 6.1 million tons of plastic waste ended up in waterways and 1.7 million tons flowed into oceans. There is now an estimated 30 million tons of plastic waste in seas and oceans, and 109 million tons has accumulated in rivers.1

As a result, micro plastics are increasingly linked to health problems including heart attacks and strokes. In response, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws and new packaging regulations are gaining momentum worldwide, placing the financial burden of recycling and disposal on producers rather than governments. Led by European and Asian governments, this shift is starting to impact packaging design and manufacturing in the US. With states like California and New York implementing EPR and other sustainability legislation, companies are increasingly designing packaging for recyclability, using more sustainable materials, and reducing overall packaging use to comply with recycling targets and avoid financial penalties.

The Value of Sustainable Packaging for Your Business

In an ever more environmentally conscious marketplace, sustainable packaging offers a win-win situation for your brand and your bottom line. Consumers in the US are growingly making purchasing decisions based on a company’s environmental impact. 39% of US consumers consider sustainable packaging to be important or very important, which has led to 2.7 times faster growth for sustainable brands versus traditional competitors, despite price premiums.2

Packaging is a critical touchpoint for users’ perceptions of a brand. By implementing eco-friendly packaging, a company demonstrates a commitment to sustainability, which resonates with these customers and can lead to brand loyalty, positive perception, and word-of-mouth promotion.

Additionally, sustainable packaging can translate to cost savings. Responsibly sourced materials often come at a competitive price, and using less packaging overall reduces material consumption and space and weight in shipping. Furthermore, with the rise of EPR laws in the US, companies face potential penalties for non-recyclable packaging. Sustainable design ensures compliance, saving you money in fines and avoiding logistical headaches.

What are Some Strategies and Tactics I Can Implement Within my Business?

To meet internally set targets, most businesses have a lot of work to do. While 75% of large US companies have made sustainable-packaging commitments, less than 30% are prepared to comply with legislation.2 Single-use packaging as it exists today is a mature industry, embedded in global supply chains, retail operations, design, and customer expectations. To make wasteful packaging obsolete, sustainable packaging must be competitive, meeting or exceeding all criteria of existing packaging solutions. It must present a compelling business case—not only environmentally, but also economically and from a business, marketing, and supply chain perspective.

To take on this type of a challenge, we encourage businesses to think of sustainable packaging (like any sustainability initiative) as a journey rather than a destination. And like any journey, it begins by taking the first step.

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6 Strategies and Tactics

  1. Metrics
    A good starting point is to begin to measure the impact of your current products and packaging. Simply by collecting this information and making it available to the right people, you are setting your business up for success on the sustainability journey. There are a handful of key metrics every business on this journey can benefit from gathering related to their product or service:

    • Embodied carbon—the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with all stages of a product’s life
    • Landfill volume
    • Recycling rates
    • Negative externalities (e.g., microplastics or ocean waste)
    • User perception and engagement

    Measuring impact can have a profound effect on business success in implementing sustainable strategies. Often it is possible to achieve improvement just by establishing data gathering processes, setting clear targets, and communicating goals clearly with stakeholders.

  2. Dematerialization and Material Efficacy
    Dematerialization means reducing packaging material use to minimize landfill and carbon footprint. This strategy must balance material reduction with the need to maintain product protection. This is where businesses often realize cost savings by reducing raw materials, shipping weight, etc.
  3. Biodegradable Packaging
    Biodegradable Packaging is an emerging and popular alternative to single-use plastics. Made from plant-based sources like corn starch or mushroom mycelium, these materials break down completely in a composting environment, turning into nutrient-rich soil instead of lingering in landfills. This not only reduces waste but also creates a valuable resource.However, access to composting facilities can vary greatly. Some packaging materials even require specialized facilities for processing, and the US infrastructure is still in its infancy. Some plant-based options are “backyard compostable” but may not provide the shelf life and water retention performance of their plastic counterparts.
  4. Reusable Packaging
    Reusable packaging promises better efficiency and material use since the packaging can be reused hundreds or thousands of times, instead of discarded after a single use. While reusable packaging promises a lot of benefits, it also comes with some significant challenges. Reusable packaging systems require additional logistics infrastructure (“reverse logistics”) to collect, wash, and redistribute the packaging. Collecting the packaging back from the customer is a difficult task, especially in the US where convenience is king. You must recollect and recirculate the packaging many times before the environmental benefits are realized, and dishwashing is water and labor intensive. Finally, reusable packaging creates new design criteria to solve for users to feel comfortable and engaged. However, this also presents the opportunity to provide an elevated experience for your customer, with higher quality materials and features.
RePack bags
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McDonald's cups
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  1. Education and Behavior
    The full potential of sustainable packaging can only be realized when consumers understand and engage with the process. Consumers often have a negative reaction to change until the benefit is clear, so it is critical to have a communication strategy in place and have an ongoing conversation with your customers about their experience. Businesses run the risk of being forced to adopt packaging solutions that might not work for their customers and businesses if they don’t get ahead of the requirements and invest in creating solutions.Creating an effective messaging strategy, publishing sustainability reports, and creating visible changes to address consumers demands for more sustainable packaging is all critical to ensuring stakeholders, especially your customers, understand the benefits and create added revenue and value in response to positive changes.
child putting plastic bottle in recycling bin
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  1. Sustainability Villains
    As you embark on your sustainable packaging journey, you will encounter these common villains of sustainability. Try to minimize creating unintended negative outcomes and challenge your teams to find sustainable alternatives:

    • Single-use plastics
    • Packaging with multiple materials and layers that are difficult to separate
    • Coatings and adhesives that can be damaging to the environment and people’s health and reduce recyclability
    • Excessive packaging like oversized boxes, clamshells, and overpackaging (a box inside a box)
    • Sustainable packaging solutions that miss critical criteria for marketing or supply chain
    • Solutions that create negative user experiences that outweigh benefits

Sustainable packaging is a necessity as we face increasing environmental challenges, demand shaped by consumer perception, and more government legislation. The industry must adapt to incorporate more sustainable practices while still fulfilling its fundamental roles to protect and celebrate the product.

As consumers, we are responsible for making informed buying decisions and for sorting and disposing of our waste properly. As designers, we need to push for sustainable solutions, be thoughtful with material selection and criteria, and develop innovative solutions to replace existing models. As a business, we need to measure the impact of our operations, invest in better solutions, and embrace disruptive innovations. It is only with the cooperation of these collective stakeholders that we can create a more sustainable packaging model.

For more insights on sustainable design, head over to our Sustainability Resource Portal.


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