Embracing Environmental Aspirations
While the topic of sustainability is nothing new for packaging and converting businesses, ever-changing societal demands are pushing the industry to keep up with the latest trends. Similarly, brands are listening to the wants and needs of their customers and leaning on packaging suppliers for solutions.
Rosalyn Bandy, VP of sustainability for labeling industry association TLMI, notes that over the last six months, she’s received more calls and inquiries than ever before from members wanting to know what they can do to make sure the labels they are producing are eco-friendly.
“We know that labels are always discarded, and they have a limited life span,” Bandy says. “And the label is always going to get discarded as part of the package. What TLMI members want to know is how to make sure labeling and packaging is protective of the product while not affecting the recyclability of that container.”
These questions tend to prevail around plastics — namely, how to recycle plastic containers with labels adhered to them, she notes.
“Plastic has essentially lost its social license,” Bandy states. “The industry needs to help brands improve that image.”
Bandy adds that many TLMI member companies are also engaged with the Association of Plastic Recyclers on sustainability topics, including how to design labels for recyclability on plastic containers.
Packaging firms are also assisting brands on leveraging stronger recycling instructions on labels, Bandy maintains. For example, if it is a shrink sleeve label, does it instruct the end-user to remove the shrink sleeve for recycling purposes? If it is a pressure sensitive label, has it met the design guidelines for recyclability?
“These are very hot topics right now in the label industry,” Bandy says. “If a brand wants to change their container to be more recycling friendly, then of course the label printer or converter will need to assist.”
Bandy adds that printers and converters now have a wide array of tools and resources available for when a brand wants to move to a more sustainable packaging solution.
“The label industry is recognizing that they have to be ready with solutions,” she explains. “And [printers and converters] are recognizing that this is going to happen sooner than later. So, they want to be ready for when their customers ask for it.”
Bandy notes that this a seismic shift in the mindset of the industry, estimating that just seven or eight years ago, many printers didn’t put much thought into providing more sustainable labeling options for brands. Now that thinking is very different.
“Brands have to earn the trust of the consumer by sharing information constantly, and packaging is a way to do that,” Bandy maintains. “[Consumers] want to know what the ingredients are, they want to know that it is recyclable, and they want it boldly expressed. The future consumer is expecting businesses to have a responsibility to the environment. They want to know product sourcing, production, the impact of the product, and that all speaks to the label especially when it comes to things like recyclability and compostability.”
Meanwhile, Ron Sasine, principal at packaging consulting firm Hudson Windsor, contends that consumers already understand that there is a packaging problem because they are the ones dealing with waste materials in their homes and offices. The true sustainability challenge is multifaceted, he says, including how the packaging is generated, the transportation and logistics involved in delivering the product, and how well the package preserves and protects the product.
“It also has to do with how that package interacts with and communicates its underlying value to the consumer before the consumer disposes of it,” he adds. “Consumers are in a place where they want what is in the package, but don’t often understand the interconnectedness of the package to the product they are buying.”
Sasine maintains that since consumers already feel that they have a lot of packaging to dispose of or recycle, sustainability challenges are tangible to the buying public. Brand owners understand this belief among consumers, he adds, and are working to improve the issue.
Packaging companies need to begin to assess what the packaging they are producing is there to accomplish, Sasine says, stating that there are three main components to consider: protection, structure, and communication.
“When you look at packaging not in terms of what it is but what it does, that’s the beginning of an enlightened decision-making process about sustainability,” Sasine advises. “Stop looking at what it is, start looking at what it does, and then you can make an informed decision.”
According to Nina Goodrich, executive director of GreenBlue, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to the sustainable use of materials, brands are demanding increased recyclability of packaging, including the use of responsibly sourced recycled materials.
“Packaging is being driven by carbon footprint and circularity,” Goodrich said via email. “Communities are eliminating packaging formats from the mix of what they collect, including some types of paper packaging.”
Goodrich suggests that communities need to rethink how they collect recycled materials and the policies that help fund the recycling system. She points to the rise of chemical recycling as a method to recycle lower-value plastics and films.
She also sees a strong societal drive to replace plastic packaging with alternative materials or reusable containers.
“Material health will be a focus moving forward,” she contends.
In the “Global Packaging Trends 2020” report released by market intelligence firm Mintel, two developments are identified as being transformational to the packaging industry. The first trend, Mintel reports, is that packaging companies must remain “ahead of the recycling curve” and become innovators in the realm of recycling. This includes thinking about packaging solutions beyond what is considered to be recyclable today.
“Next-generation technologies are only small pieces of the greater equation that will address and solve the waste and recycling crisis,” the Mintel report states. “The ultimate solution is brands, manufacturers, packaging industry bodies, governments, and environmental non-profits working in harmony to better inform consumers, develop more easily recyclable packaging, and establish better collection systems and recycling processes.”
The second sustainability trend, according to Mintel, is the phenomenon of retailers going packaging-free. This involves selling goods in reusable and refillable containers.
“With single-use now a toxic phrase for many consumers, refillable packaging is becoming more and more commonly known and used,” the Mintel report says. “However, brands need to investigate how to offer packaging refill options in-store to avoid this solution becoming the preserve of private label products only.”
A move to reusable containers will remove packaging as a communication channel between brands and consumers, the Mintel report adds. Brands will need to find other engagement opportunities to plug the void left by eliminating messaging on packaging. According to Mintel’s research, 54% of American consumers say they are somewhat to very interested in reusable containers.
“The brands that will win in this space are those that use refill opportunities to make a direct connection to the shopper and elevate the shopping experience,” the Mintel report states.
For the future, the Mintel report predicts a global “packaging reset” by 2030 that involves sustainable packaging being replaced by responsible packaging.
“Many consumers globally aren’t recognizing personal responsibility when it comes to sustainability efforts; rather, they expect product and packaging manufacturers to lead the charge,” the report says. “A better understanding of terminology and technology will empower consumers to make more informed and responsible purchasing decisions.”