COMMENTARY: Navigating Packaging Backlash
Last month, I had the pleasure of serving on the judging panel for the Flexible Packaging Association’s annual Achievement Awards, a competition dedicated to honoring the latest innovations in design, printing, sustainability and other attributes of flexible packaging. While you’ll have to wait until March for the winners to be revealed, what I can tell you is that many plastic packaging applications are advancing in sustainability, while also solving pain points in the consumer journey.
However, plastic packaging continues to come under fire from consumers and advocacy groups concerned about plastic waste pollution — a global problem that undoubtedly demands immediate attention. Here at packagePRINTING, we’ve covered the sustainability attributes of all packaging formats, and while there is no perfect solution, each has its own specific benefits. For example, there’s little argument to be made regarding paper-based packaging’s excellent recyclability. And the fact that it comes from a renewable resource makes it even stronger from a sustainability perspective. But, consumers need to think long and hard about what sustainability means before they clamor to eradicate plastic packaging entirely.
Take for example, this recent article from SFGATE, a sister-site of the San Francisco Chronicle. The piece outlines the significant backlash grocery chain Trader Joe’s has faced from consumers, upset about what they perceive as an overuse of packaging. The concern seems to be largely relegated to the produce section of the store, with the article reporting that much of the backlash is over Trader Joe’s use of plastic to package fruits and vegetables.
Like most grocery stores, Trader Joe's offers consumers a mix of loose and prepackaged options. But there certainly have been times during Trader Joe's visits where I've found certain produce items are only available in plastic packaging. For consumers seeking to reduce their plastic consumption, the frustration makes sense. But before making calls to eliminate all plastic packaging from the produce aisle, like this petition on Change.org that has garnered more than 87,000 signatures, consumers need to consider the benefits it can have. For example, in reducing food waste, the American Chemistry Council cites in a blog post that plastic wrap can add 11 days to the life of cucumbers and 21 days for bananas. While there are recyclability challenges for this type of plastic packaging, extending the shelf life of produce, while helping to reduce food waste, is certainly a plus for plastic’s sustainability attributes.
Meanwhile, it appears that Trader Joe’s has seen the calls for a reduction in plastic from its stores. In a Dec. 31 announcement on the store’s website, it stated it would be taking action on the sustainability front, reducing the quantity of produce products sold in plastic packaging, specifically highlighting apples, pears and potatoes.
The company also outlined a new framework through which it would be assessing its packaging, based on the following five pillars:
- Reducing and removing packaging
- Sourcing renewable and recycled packaging materials
- Choosing packaging that can be realistically recycled
- Avoiding the use of harmful substances in packaging
- Providing information to customers that increases understanding of how best to recycle or dispose of packaging
I’m particularly encouraged by principle No. 5, which embraces increased communication to consumers regarding best practices in disposing of a package. All-too-often, without clear communication, non-recyclable material gets placed in the curbside bin, and packaging material that can be recycled via in-store collection, gets tossed in the trash. My hope for Trader Joe’s as it reassesses its packaging and removes packaging where applicable, is that it considers these shelf life and food waste factors before fully scrapping plastic in the produce aisle, while embracing packaging design elements that make proper disposal practices clear to consumers.
When it comes to selecting packaging materials and formats, brands and retailers are faced with a great deal of complex decisions that are not always consumer-facing. In addition to making a package visually attractive to discerning consumers, there are functionality, ease-of-use, cost and sustainability decisions to be made. Rather than completely eschewing a packaging format, it would be beneficial for brands and retailers to weigh the pros and cons of each, and select the right format for the right application. Then, utilize that packaging to communicate their decision-making process, and the role consumers can play in proper disposal practices. The How2Recycle initiative, for example, is a great step in the right direction.
There’s no question that the packaging industry must take a leadership position in working toward diminishing the global pollution problem. And recyclability is an important sustainability factor, with certain materials excelling and others needing to catch up. But through collaborative educational initiatives, brands, retailers and converters can help paint the full sustainability picture, and the positive role many packaging formats can play.