Eco Friendly Retail Packaging Complete Guide (Sustainable Packaging Innovations)

Eco Friendly Retail Packaging Complete Guide (Sustainable
Packaging Innovations)
Eco friendly retail packaging guide

In this Green Business Bureau eco friendly retail packaging guide, we explore sustainable packaging solutions for 6 of the most common types of packaging materials used. We explain our current waste crisis in detail, before defining an effective business waste management strategy to reduce packaging waste.

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The need for sustainable packaging: Giving perspective to our waste crisis

Henderson Island is situated in the South Pacific, lying halfway between Chile and New Zealand. This island and the surrounding ocean are one of the world’s largest marine reserves and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to its isolation, the atoll’s ecology practically remains untouched by humans. Yet, the pristine edges of this white-beached, verdant paradise have been stained by human activity 3,000 miles away. That is, 17.6 tons of trash has accumulated on Henderson’s beaches to date. The tendrils of human waste claim even Earth’s most hidden corners.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch measures three times the size of France.

And across the pacific ocean, to the north, we have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a region where our waste problem is visibly indisputable. Here, the ocean acts as a vortex engulfing enough trash to measure three times the size of France.

Thinking about packaging waste specifically, containers and packaging amount to 82.2 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated across the United States, which is 28.1% of total MSW generated. In 2021, Americans alone discarded 51 million tons of wrappers, bottles, and bags. Of this packaging waste, 91% ends up in landfill sites.

This reader is our waste crisis.

Retail packaging defined: The impact of packaging waste and the rise of the ethical consumer

The Environmental Protection Agency defines containers and packaging as products that are assumed to be discarded in the same year as the product was purchased.

We can see the degression in this definition – Earth’s resources are cast off quicker than our planet can regenerate them. Polluting packaging agents build up to foul habitats and ecological systems, creating unstable environments which threaten human well-being and security.

For instance, according to studies from the National Institute of Health (NIH), certain plastics found in consumer packaging can lead to cancers, diabetes, neurological disorders, hormonal imbalances, and other various ill-health effects caused by inhalation or direct contact. In addition, researchers estimate that over one million animals die each year after becoming entrapped or ingesting litter. E.g. a recent study by Plymouth University estimated that a staggering 700 marine species are threatened with extinction due to the build-up of plastic trash.

“Biodiversity loss can have significant direct human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, and local migration and, on occasion, may even cause or exacerbate political conflict. Loss in biodiversity may limit discovery of potential treatments for many diseases and health problems.” – Biodiversity and Health, WHO

Consumers seek sustainable packaging solutions

Your business packaging depicts the soul of your brand. This branding can decipher the difference between a meh shopping experience and a yeah moment. Packaging creates a barrier between your product and the outside world, protecting merchandise from damage. In addition, product packaging is a marketing tool, providing customer information that will also influence sales.

In summary, product packaging is essential for retailers, which creates a conundrum when it comes to looking after our planet via waste reduction. You want to wow your customers while also reducing your impact on our planet. Luckily, the ethical consumer claims a market majority, meaning the two go hand-in-hand.

As the detrimental effects of packaging waste hit the mainstream, consumers are starting to take note. For instance, research by IPSOS found that three in four consumers seek to reduce waste by choosing products packaged in paper or cardboard as opposed to other materials, like plastic.

Business waste management: Strategizing for sustainable packaging

Are you utilizing post-consumer materials?

Are you making the switch to alternative greener solutions and technologies?

Are you removing expendable packaging, and adopting a minimalist approach?

Are you maximizing space, removing unnecessary air pockets, and designing packaging to perfectly fit your product?

These are the types of questions sustainable retail brands must ask.

On top of this, according to Chemical Market Analytics in their 2022 Circular Plastic Industry Update webinar, the sustainable retail business must prioritize waste avoidance above all else. This means introducing initiatives whereby the consumer can opt-out of packaging when applicable.

Chemical Market Analytics goes on to group end-of-service life processing in order of preference for sustainability. This order, from the most preferred down to the least preferred, is as follows:

  • Waste avoidance: Reduce consumption
  • Waste avoidance: Reuse/Repair
  • Waste recycling/recovery: Mechanical recycling
  • Waste recycling/recovery: Chemical recycling
  • Waste recycling/recovery: (digestion, composting)
  • Fossil fuel energy avoidance: Incineration with energy recovery
  • Waste contamination: Controlled storage
  • Pollution: Uncontrolled disposal

When packaging cannot be avoided, next on the list of priorities is waste recycling and recovery.

According to a recent report by Jabil, 94% of packaging decision-makers at global enterprises – out of the 200 surveyed – have at least begun to discuss plans around sustainable packaging, looking at avoidance, recycling, and recovery strategies. However, less than one-quarter of these respondents had implemented a fully mature program.

The two biggest challenges retailers face when it comes to adopting sustainable packaging solutions are:

  1. A lack of sustainable packaging materials that can be leveraged at scale,
  2. Inefficient recycling and recovery processes.
The problem with recycling as a business waste management strategy

Out of the 51 million tons of wrappers, bottles, and bags that are thrown away in the US, 91% end up in landfill sites, the ocean or are scattered in the atmosphere as toxic micro particles, leaving only 9% to re-enter the economy through recycling and reuse schemes.

Yet, poor recycling and reuse rates are not from a lack of trying or consumer care. The large amounts of plastic waste material, the material’s poor recycling affinity, and the low efficiency and effectiveness of plastic recycling processes play a significant part. According to the independent global campaign network Greenpeace, if every household separated every piece of plastic, and disposed of it in a dedicated recycling plant, then our waste problem will remain equally as troublesome.

95% of plastic packaging material – valued at $80-120 billion – is lost from our economy every year. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s 2016 The New Plastic Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics report, 40 years after the launch of a well-known recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. And of the plastic that is recycled, when additional loss from sorting and reprocessing is factored in, only 5% of the material value is retained for subsequent reuse. And that 5% is converted to lower-value applications that cannot be recycled again due to material quality loss.

These factors mean poor recycling and recovery systems are more pronounced for plastics, as opposed to other materials like glass, paper, and aluminum – as can be seen in the table detailed below. Hence, choosing recycled plastic packaging materials or providing consumers with the option to recycle – at the current efficiency rates – is a strategic approach that will not solve our waste crisis.

Luckily, today we’re witnessing positive change. Material designers, suppliers, converters, mechanics, and innovators are working to solve these issues. As such, we’re witnessing a rise in eco friendly packaging solutions and improvements to recycling and recovery processes targeting each one of the 6 main packaging materials used by retailers.

The 6 types of retail packaging waste

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the main materials that account for packaging waste are:

  • Glass
  • Steel
  • Aluminum
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Plastic
  • Wood

The below table shows how much of each packaging material contributed to the total solid municipal waste (SMW) generated in 2018. For each material type, we’ve indicated how much waste ended up in a landfill, was recycled, composted, or combusted for energy (measured by weight generated in 1,000 U.S. tons). The table has been adapted from the Environmental Protection Agency:

Material type Waste generated Waste recycled Waste composted Combustion with energy generated Lanfilled
Glass 9,790 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 12%) 3,060 (as a percentage of total glass waste generated is 31%) 0 1,310 (as a percentage of total glass waste generated is 13%) 5,420 (as a percentage of total glass waste generated is 55%)
Steel 2,210 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 3%) 1,630 (as a percentage of total steel waste generated is 74%) 0 110 (as a percentage of total steel waste generated is 5%) 470 (as a percentage of total steel waste generated is 21%)
Aluminum 1,920 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 2%) 670 (as a percentage of total aluminum waste generated is 35%) 0 250 (as a percentage of total aluminum waste generated is 13%) 1,000 (as a percentage of total aluminum waste generated is 52%)
Paper and cardboard 41,060 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 51%) 30,080 (as a percentage of total paper and cardboard waste generated is 73%) 0 2,160 (as a percentage of total paper and cardboard waste generated is 5%) 8,820 (as a percentage of total paper and cardboard waste generated is 22%)
Plastic 14,530 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 18%) 1,980 (as a percentage of total plastic waste generated is 14%) 0 2,460 (as a percentage of total plastic waste generated is 17%) 10,090 (as a percentage of total plastic waste generated is 69%)
Wood 11,530 (as a percentage of the total MSW detailed is 14%) 3,100 (as a percentage of total wood waste generated is 27%) 0 1,650 (as a percentage of total wood waste generated is 14%) 6,780 (as a percentage of total wood waste generated is 59%)

(Note: Percentages have been rounded up to the nearest whole number.)

The amount of waste generated for paper and cardboard is the highest (51% of the total MSW detailed – 41,060 thousand tons). Yet most of this waste is recycled (73%), leaving 22% to go to landfill. Plastic is the second highest MSW generated (18% of the total MSW detailed – 14,530 thousand tons). What’s concerning here is the recycling/recovery rate of plastic waste. In 2018, only 14% was recycled leaving 69% in landfill, highlighting the inefficiency of plastic recycling processes. These figures detail why plastic packaging waste is the main cause for concern, and why seeking alternative materials – glass, alumnium, steel, paper, wood – is in itself an impactful means of reducing a brand’s environmental footprint.

For each material discussed above, we will explore the eco friendly packaging innovations that seek to avoid waste, and improve the efficiency of recycling and recovery processes.

Eco friendly retail packaging solutions and innovation

We’ve drawn from the most recent green tech developments and innovative ideas to give you a complete list of eco friendly packaging options. We target the six main packaging material options, namely: Glass, steel, aluminum, paper and cardboard, plastic, and wood. We look at waste avoidance first as the most preferred solution for sustainability, before seeking recycling/recovery options.

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Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce glass packaging waste

Waste avoidance

Waste avoidance of glass packaging is achieved from material reuse. With this in mind, one brand showcasing material reuse in action is The Handmade Soap Company with their Anam Lotion product. The lotion is packaged in an aesthetically pleasing glass pump bottle with gold-etched branding. The glass bottle has been designed for infinite reuse by the consumer, and in so doing, extends the product offering. The brand also provides compostable refill packs at half the price of the initial purchase price. The Handmade Soap Company demonstrates how compostable packaging can be introduced into a supply chain that relies on glass packaging.

Material recycling and recovery

Glass is non-biodegradable, and there are no biodegradable alternative materials on the market. This means recovery options are solely reliant on recycling processes.

But glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly, so we’re seeing many retail brands switch to using recycled glass as a more sustainable packaging option.

However, despite these green credentials, only 31% of glass waste is recycled (refer to the table above). This figure highlights a supply-demand discrepancy in the U.S. The main challenge for glass recycling is sorting glass material as per the material’s color.

“People toss bottles of every color in the bin and it comes back to us unsorted by color. It’s like unscrambling an egg.” – Robert B. Hippert, Sustainability strategy leader for manufacturing at O-I Glass

Mixed-colored glass cullet (cullet is recycled, broken, or waste glass) cannot be easily manufactured into new products with the desired optical properties. Therefore, light-based sensors are used to evaluate the chemical composition and color of pebble-sized chunks of glass to sort the material. However, at present these sensors operate at 75% recycling efficiency. With this in mind, sensor advances could improve the quality and availability of sorted, recyclable glass. One such advancement is Tech provider Redwave’s new CX series, which has improved the accurate identification of glass material by up to 50%.

With innovation in mind, more than 20 companies across the recycled glass supply chain have come together to form a coalition that seeks to improve the country’s glass recycling rate. Beverage giants including Goose Island Beer, Heineken USA, and Rocky Mountain Bottle Company have teamed up with glass manufacturers, waste haulers, recycling processors, and trade organizations to work towards a common goal of increasing recycled glass usage in business. The coalition aims to bring best practices and innovative solutions to the glass recycling industry. For instance, two North Carolina material recovery facilities have installed sorting equipment at the front end of the recycling process rather than recovering glass at the process end, saving equipment from wear and tear and contamination.

“In the future, with material shortages due to climate change issues and resource scarcity, using a finite resource that is endlessly recyclable is a smart, long-term business solution” – Katie Wallace, New Belgium Brewing’s Assistant Director of Sustainability

Summary: What can your retail business do?

  • Provide your customers with branded reusable glass containers, and offer refill options where applicable.
  • Choose recycled glass products for your packaging material.
  • Collaborate. Work with industry players to help improve the efficiency rate of the glass recycling processes. Show your support.
  • Communicate to customers the importance of recycling your glass packaging material and explain how they can do this.
Sustainable packaging: Innovations to reduce steel packaging waste

Waste avoidance

Waste avoidance comes from providing reusable containers and product refill options as we witnessed above for glass. But also, using less material to achieve the same outcome is another means of avoiding waste.

With the latter in mind, the packaging manufacturer Ardagh Group has developed a high-quality, lighter steel that the chemical and consumer goods brand Henkel uses for its aerosol cans. These cans are a mere 0.13 mm thick meaning they use 15% less material than other steel counterparts, yet are more rigid. This lighter-weight steel reduces the carbon footprint and water consumption of material manufacturing processes, while also reducing the amount of waste material generated.

Material recycling and recovery

As with glass, steel is non-biodegradable and there aren’t biodegradable options on the market. This means recovery options are solely reliant on recycling processes.

Steel offers a sustainable packaging option if the material’s recycling affinity is leveraged.

Like glass, steel is 100% recyclable, meaning this metal can be recycled again and again. Once steel packaging has been used, selling this packaging to steel mills will start a new cycle of packaging production. Steel packaging is recycled at a far greater rate than any other packaging material (74% of packaging waste is recycled as seen in the table above).

“Steel is the most recycled packaging material in Europe and across the world – TATA Steel

Steel is claimed to be the easiest packaging material to recycle in the world. The metal is circular by nature as there’s no material quality loss once steel has been recycled.

However, more can always be done, and so we’re witnessing stakeholders throughout the value chain seeking to further improve steel recycling processes, recycling infrastructure, and customer communications to boost recycling rates. As such, for the 10th year running, the steel recycling rate continues to improve, reaching 85.5% in 2022.

To exemplify the progression in this industry,..

* This article was originally published here