Trends in Industrial and Retail Sustainable Packaging

Whatever their color, cardboard boxes are a "green" packaging alternative because they are easily recyclable and reusable. Photo: © morganimation -

In a recent report from the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), companies in the food, beverage, and consumer products industries plan to cut packaging waste by 4 billion pounds between 2005 and 2020. They’ve already reduced waste by 1.5 billion pounds since 2005, leaving 2.5 billion more pounds of packaging waste to eliminate by 2020. And, as sustainable packaging trends in today’s market steadily increase, 2.5 billion sounds like a highly reachable goal.

So how, exactly, are manufacturers cutting down on waste? First off, they’re looking at the entire life cycle of a package — from sources to production to end-of-life disposal and beyond — and identifying where and how they can improve sustainability. Then, they’re making changes to each step of their process to implement packaging solutions that not only consist of sustainable materials, but ones that got to the shelf by way of sustainable practices.

Renewable, Recyclable, Compostable Materials

One of the most visible trends in sustainable packaging involves the focus on environmentally friendly materials. Renewable! Recyclable! Compostable! These green terms are showing up on packages everywhere, from grocery aisles to shoe stores, shipping containers to the retail shelf. But what are the materials behind these labels, and how are they better for the environment?

  • Corrugated paperboard: Otherwise known as good ol’ cardboard, those simple brown boxes that we use to store, ship and move everyday items are made from the single most recycled packaging material on the planet. Manufacturers and retailers turn to corrugated because it’s durable, versatile and reliable, with an ideal surface for bold marketing visuals. Consumers trust corrugated because it’s strong and familiar, and they know it’s easily recyclable and reusable.
  • Recycled PET: Polyethylene terephtalate, or PET, is a type of plastic best known for its use in water bottles. Recycling and reprocessing PET into new materials helps reduce plastic waste while still retaining the familiar look, feel and durability of virgin plastic. ConAgra Foods recently reduced its use of virgin plastic by 8 million pounds per year, simply by making the switch to recycled PET for its Healthy Choice and Marie Callender’s frozen meal trays.
  • Bioplastics: The word may sound iffy, like something out of a sci-fi movie, but bioplastics are the real deal and are getting more real by the minute. Just look at the two cola giants, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, as they battle it out for the most sustainable beverage bottle (Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle is made from 30% plant-based material, and PepsiCo just introduced its bottle made from 100% agricultural waste). Bioplastics work to reduce dependence on fossil fuels by shifting away from oil-based plastics and producing materials from renewable sources, such as plants and starches. Many of these materials are easily biodegradable or compostable, so consumers can put them back into the earth for safe disposal.

These sustainable materials are helping pave the way toward a healthier future. We may be living in a material world, but that certainly doesn’t mean the materials have to take over our world.

Rethinking Packaging Designs

Today’s packaging designers are not only thinking outside the box for sustainable ideas — they’re thinking outside the clamshell. Most people have had an encounter with clamshell packaging at one point or another, often with a sharp tool in hand and the strong urge to stab the package open (caused by a heavy dose of “wrap rage”). With its all-plastic design and hard-to-open exterior, the clamshell has become the epitome of ineffective packaging.

There's no more "wrap rage" with the new H-Loc blister packs. Photo: Courtesy Straight North

Blister packs, such as the H-Loc Trapped Blister, are clamshell replacements that retain the traditional clamshell’s tamper-resistant properties while providing safer, more sustainable packaging options. The design consists mainly of corrugated paperboard, which traps a minimal amount of recycled PET to contain the product. The corrugated makes the package easier to open with just a pair of scissors (no more stabbing!), and the use of sustainable materials help reduce harmful waste.

PUMA’s Clever Little Bag is another prime example of how innovative packaging can change the way people see traditional designs. The Clever Little Bag takes a regular shoebox, reduces its use of paper, energy and fuel, and then turns it into a reusable bag. The bag replaces the box’s need for a lid and, with its convenient handle, eliminates the need for a plastic carrying bag after purchase. Once the shoes are on and the box is recycled, the bag can be used for anything from grocery shopping to storing toys and games.

Even the smallest redesign can improve a package’s sustainability. A more subtle and yet extremely effective design change occurred when Kraft reduced the weight of its salad dressing bottles by nearly 19%, saving more than 3 million pounds of plastic per year. The company achieved this by building the mouth into the cap of the bottle, which eliminated the hard-to-open plastic band closure, and slightly changing the shape to make it easier to grip, pour and store. The optimized design allowed for more bottles per shipment, increasing shipping efficiency by 18%.

Creative packaging designs can reshape not only the package, but the way people think about the sources and processes behind each package, and how sustainability fits in every step of the way.

Sustainable Packaging Scorecards and Programs

Yes, companies are keeping score on the sustainable packaging front. As consumers demand more environmentally friendly packaging options that make it easier to reduce, reuse, recycle and renew, big names like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Amazon are responding.

Wal-Mart released its online Packaging Scorecard in 2008 with the goal of reducing its packaging by 5% across its global supply chain by 2013. The scorecard works as an evaluative tool for suppliers, helping Wal-Mart measure its progress in improving packaging performance and reducing waste. Suppliers receive scores based on criteria such as production, material value, product-to-package ratio, cube utilization, transportation, recycled content, recovery value, renewable energy and innovation. The scores help the suppliers identify areas to improve the process for more efficient, sustainable packaging. As of 2010, more than 329,000 items carried at Wal-Mart were entered into the packaging scorecard, each packaged in more sustainable materials and having gone through a process that reduced energy and fuel.

McDonald’s also introduced a global packaging scorecard that focuses on the use of chemicals, recycled materials, and third-party-certified raw materials, as well as packaging weight, greenhouse gas emissions and end-of-life options. Not only is McDonald’s the largest purchaser of beef and potatoes, but it’s also one of the largest purchasers of recycled paper in the world – purchasing more than $345 million of recycled material in 2009 in the United States alone. With that kind of impact on worldwide suppliers, McDonald’s sustainable packaging efforts are making a significant difference in conserving resources and reducing waste.

Fueled by clamshell “wrap rage,” Amazon set out to provide safer, more sustainable packaging with its Certified Frustration-Free Packaging program. Rather than an infuriating clamshell casing and a tangle of wire ties and plastic bindings, a Certified Frustration-Free package is made to be as simple and recyclable as possible. This means customers often receive their Amazon purchases in 100% recyclable cardboard packaging, without the excess plastic waste. Advanced software works to determine the right size package for each item’s dimensions and weight, helping to reduce the amount of wasted material due to too-large packages. Manufacturers can even receive a free packaging analysis from Amazon, getting feedback on how to make their packaging more eco-friendly and Certified Frustration-Free.

And the Future Is Looking Green

With big names leading the march toward greener business and lifestyle, a consumer preference for sustainable packaging trends has become the market norm. We’re using better materials from renewable sources, and we’re keeping them out of the landfills. We’re learning how to reduce plastic use and how to compost our trash. We’re making shipping and transportation more cost-effective and energy-efficient. And we’re putting safer, sustainable packages in the hands of consumers and businesses worldwide.

As these trends continue to become more prevalent among everyday products, we are making bigger strides on the road to a cleaner, healthier future. Two and a half billion by 2020? We’re well on the way.

Jacqui MacKenzie

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Jacqui MacKenzie is a writer for Straight North, a Chicago marketing agency that works with Heritage Pioneer, a company providing innovative packaging solutions. For more news and updates in the sustainable packaging industry, follow Pioneer Packaging on Twitter.