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Packaging Comes to the Forefront of Sustainability Efforts

August 23, 2021


Humans create a lot of waste. Environmental journalist Matt McGrath (@MattMcGrathBBC) reports, “The world produces over two billion tons of municipal solid waste every year, enough to fill over 800,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.”[1] According to McGrath, Americans are the biggest offenders producing, per head, “three times the global average of waste, including plastic and food.” Americans are also laggards when it comes to recycling. McGrath reports Americans only recycle 35% of their solid waste. Germans, on the other hand, recycle 68% of their solid waste. With landfills full and municipalities looking for new sites, citizens around the country are becoming NIMBYs.[2] In an effort to reduce waste heading to landfills, product packaging, especially the use of plastics, has become a target.


Earlier this month, “Maine Governor Janet Mills … signed the nation’s first extended producer responsibility, or EPR, law, effectively holding corporations accountable for the packaging waste they create. Now, nearly a dozen states, including Massachusetts, are on track to follow Maine’s lead.”[3] Journalist Janelle Nanos (@JanelleNanos) writes, “Think about it: A company that sells you a product — be it toothpaste or taco shells or dog food — determines how it’s packaged. Maybe it’s shipped in multiple boxes or sold in a plastic container that isn’t recyclable. Either way, once it’s tossed in the trash or recycling bin, it’s the responsibility of the municipal waste program to figure out where it goes next.”[3] In fact, a recent poll found that most consumers blame manufacturers for the packaging waste problem. Journalist Kathryn Lundstrom (@klundster) reports, “In a new Adweek-Morning Consult poll, nearly 6 in 10 said companies should be penalized for producing packaging that harms the environment.”[4] The Maine EPR law intends to do just that.


According to Nanos, Maine’s EPR law will require large companies, like Amazon, Walmart, Unilever, and Proctor & Gamble, “to track the type and amount of packaging they sell into Maine. They’ll then pay an annual fee covering the cost per ton of processing things like cardboard boxes, yogurt tubs, plastic bags, and other packaging that all end up in the waste stream. That’ll lighten the load on municipal recycling programs from Kittery to the Canadian border that today spend as much as $17.5 million a year to get rid of Maine’s packaging.” She goes on to note, “[The new law] moves the responsibility from the public to the producer of the packaging. … And doing so may lead to changes in the way consumer goods are packaged. Extended producer responsibility laws have been in place for decades in some European countries and for 15 years in some Canadian provinces, and global brands have redesigned their packaging to comply.”


The Sustainable Packaging Imperative


“As we wake up to the hard realities of the plastic pollution crisis,” writes sustainable packaging expert Reyna Bryan (@rcdpackaging), President of RCD Packaging Innovation, “we are all eager to find sustainable solutions that will allow us to deliver products to our customers without creating waste in the process.”[6] Preventing waste and being penalized for creating it are two very different approaches to the waste problem. Bryan believes a good place to start is by beefing up America’s recycling efforts and fostering a stronger recycled materials market.  She explains:


The solution lies in changing the definition for ‘recyclable’ in the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) Green Guide. The current definition of recyclable is interpreted such that a material can be labeled as recyclable only if over 60 percent of households have access to collection of the material. The current definition does not mention the need for an end market for these materials, and this is in fact where the recycling system is breaking down. It turns out that material recovery facilities (MRFs) around the country have been working day in and day out to collect our single-use packaging materials, sort and bail these materials and try to sell them on the recycled material market. Unfortunately, many of these materials (mainly plastics) do not have strong end markets, which means no one wants to buy these materials from the MRFs. So, they end up shipping these materials overseas or sending these materials to landfill.”


Dalton Litzelman, a marketing associate for Loftware, insists, “Not only are you dealing with the customer and regulatory requirements for packaging, but you also need to keep [up] with smart and sustainable packaging trends. There has been a clear emphasis on personalized products with eco-friendly materials and measures. As brands incorporate these new elements into their packaging strategy, they must re-evaluate their processes and solutions to ensure they can meet all the requirements which impact everything from artwork, production and printing to supply chain strategy.”[7] Consumer goods and retail journalist Saabira Chaudhuri (@SaabiraC) adds, “Sellers of everything from soap to soft drinks are under pressure from consumers and regulators to use less fossil-fuel-based plastic — the production of which contributes to climate change — as well as prevent plastic trash ending up in the ocean.”[8]


What are CPG Manufacturers Doing?


In addition to eliminating unnecessary packaging, three obvious solutions to the packaging conundrum are to create biodegradable, recyclable, or reusable packages. Each solution has its own challenges. Nevertheless, CPG companies are actively involved in efforts on all three fronts. For example, Nanos reports that some toothpaste in Europe doesn’t come in cardboard boxes. Instead, Colgate has created “a toothpaste tube made of recyclable PET plastic. The coating on the inside allows a user to squeeze out the paste without rolling the end of the tube, and the clear container lets them see exactly how much is still inside.”[9] Journalist Lisa Johnston (@thatljohnston) reports Procter & Gamble “will launch a trial rollout of paper bottles in Western Europe next year as part of overall plans to cut the use of virgin plastics in half by 2030. … The No. 2 consumer goods company will leverage the learnings as part of a strategy to scale up paper packaging for more wide incorporation throughout its portfolio.”[10] According to Johnston, “The recyclable, bio-based technology uses sustainably sourced FSC-certified paper and a thin plastic barrier made from post-consumer recycled PET. It’s also in use by such CGs as The Coca-Cola Company, L’Oreal, Absolut, Carlsberg Group, BillerudKorsnäs and ALPLA, and future versions will integrate the plastic barrier into the paper lining to create a 100% bio-based bottle that can be recyclable in the paper stream.”


Enterra Solutions® client Nestlé is also making big investments in this area. Chaudhuri reports, “Nestlé, whose products include Nescafé drinks and Purina pet food, said … it would spend more than [1.62 billion dollars] on recycled plastic that is approved for contact with food. It also earmarked [270 million dollars] to invest in startups researching new materials, refill systems and recycling technologies.” Last September, Nestlé reported it “is investing $30 million into the private equity fund of investment firm Closed Loop Partners whose goal is upgrading U.S. recycling infrastructure and gaining access to food-grade recycled plastics. … The Closed Loop Leadership Fund was created to acquire ‘well-established, best-in-class’ companies that are recycling materials to build a circular supply chain. The fund aims to increase the U.S. recycling rate by an additional 25% in areas serviced by the companies in the portfolio.”[11]


As Chaudhuri notes, refill systems are another avenue CPG manufacturers are exploring. Journalist Jenny McTaggart reports, “Reusable plastic containers (RPCs) and other suitably shaped transport packaging are poised for dynamic growth in the years ahead, thanks to the industry’s heightened focus on sustainability, along with a number of other trends pointing toward the need for more resilient supply chains.”[12] She adds that a survey conducted last year found “a vast majority of respondents to the survey — 85% — said that they expect the demand for reusable packaging products and services to increase.”


Concluding Thoughts


Clearly, consumers have a role to play in helping reduce packaging waste. That’s why some industry representatives believe the Maine law (and others like it) unfairly place the blame solely on manufacturers. Critics also say such laws will raise the cost of consumer goods and disrupt supply chains. Nanos reports, “Industry groups say they’re open to the laws, ‘if they’re crafted with our vision,’ as Dan Felton, executive director of the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, put it. But Maine’s law, Felton said, puts the full cost of collection on producers; he thinks it should be shared.” All stakeholders need to get involved to find solutions. As Bryan concludes, “We are a brilliant and capable community and together we can update our policies and systems to build a better world for our future generations.”


[1] Matt McGrath, “US top of the garbage pile in global waste crisis,” BBC, 3 July 2019.
[2] NIMBY stands for ” not in my backyard.” The term joined the global vernacular in the late 1970s when people became more concerned about the dangers presented by various activities including nuclear power plants, wastewater treatment facilities, solid and hazardous waste landfills, chemical and manufacturing plants and the possible impact they could have on health and property values.
[3] Janelle Nanos, “Maine passes nation’s first law to make big companies pay for the cost of recycling their packaging,” Boston Globe, 19 July 2021.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kathryn Lundstrom, “77% of Americans Think Its on CPG Brands to Make Sure Their Packaging Get Recycled,”Adweek,19 July 2021.
[6] Reyna Bryan, “An open letter to CPG companies on recycling,” GreenBiz, 7 April 2021.
[7] Dalton Litzelman, “The Shift Towards Personalized & Sustainable Packaging,” Loftware Blog, 31 March 2020.
[8] Saabira Chaudhuri, “Nestlé Tries to Tackle Big Food’s Plastic Problem,” The Wall Street Journal, 16 January 2020.
[9] Janelle Nanos, “MIT spinout LiquiGlide lands $13.5 million to make toothpaste tubes less frustrating,” Boston Globe, 29 April 2021.
[10] Lisa Johnston, “P&G Piloting Paper Fabric Care Bottle,” Consumer Goods Technology, 20 July 2021.
[11] Jessi Devenyns, “Nestlé invests $30M in Closed Loop fund to expand sustainable packaging use,” Food Dive, 11 September 2020.
[12] Jenny McTaggart, “Tackling Supply Chain Challenges With Reusable Transport Packaging,” Progressive Grocer, 11 September 2020.

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