© Vlad Chorniy / stock.adobe.com

Packaging powerfully influences so many of our decisions as consumers. People around the world are subconsciously delighted by packaging. Packaging is highly identifiable, and it provides countless options for creativity.

Yet, there is a paradox.

We frequently admire the benefits of packaging, but packaging developers face many challenges from an environmental standpoint. Packaging can be challenging to recover and recycle.

The drive to deliver more product benefits with less packaging is strong among many consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. Additionally, packaging has many stakeholders that have benefited by designing packaging to influence consumer purchasing and deliver wonderful products and experiences. Yet, these very same stakeholders also are motivated to minimize packaging’s impact on the environment.

Balancing performance and cost with recycling

From my perspective, based on many years of R&D packaging experience working at CPG companies, we are living in very exciting times for packaging. Many CPG companies are announcing goals to develop 100 percent recyclable, recoverable or reusable packaging by 2025. At the same time, current recycling infrastructure is facing economic headwinds with increased operating costs, more contamination and lower commodity pricing.

Flexible plastic film packaging represents one battleground between CPG companies and recyclers. My belief is packaging developers will continue to use more flexible plastic film because of cost advantages and consumer desire for portability and smaller packaging.

Flexible film can protect the quality and freshness of food and many other products at a lower cost than rigid plastic, glass or metal. Flexible film is lightweight, portable, reclosable and easy to open. Some life cycle assessments have found that flexible plastic film can have the lowest environmental impact compared with other packaging options.

However, when it comes to flexible film, the complexity of materials can make it difficult for the recycling industry to collect, sort and sell profitably.

Corrugated packaging likely will grow as it is a cost-effective option to protect consumer goods from damage in distribution.

Flexible film packaging often is engineered with many different layers, measured in thousands of an inch, to provide the benefits mentioned previously as well as attractive printing. Stand-up pouches provide consumer benefits similar to rigid plastics with a lower overall environmental impact and are growing in popularity.

It is difficult to see changing from flexible film to rigid plastic, metal or glass in some applications because it would cost millions if not billions of dollars and may have a greater overall environmental impact. Perhaps paper can be engineered as a replacement in certain situations, but will these alternatives be challenging to recycle? However, I believe paper will make inroads in various applications because of sustainability.

Single-stream collection at households is obviously a challenge with flexible films, as the very properties of being lightweight, low cost and often engineered with different materials work against material recovery facilities’ (MRFs’) ability to collect, sort and sell to open markets. It can create problems at MRFs such as “tanglers” and downtime.

Another challenge is using recycled content in flexible plastic packaging, as the thin layers require high-performance materials.

From a CPG packaging developer’s perspective, technologies such as chemical recycling of mixed polymers can help to make these low-cost, high-performance materials recyclable.

Chemical recycling is receiving much press as a complement to traditional mechanical recycling. New York City-based Closed Loop Partners, for example, has invested in new companies and technologies for chemical recycling, generating a great deal of interest among brand owners as a means to recycle flexible plastic packaging and other mixed plastics.

Plastic recovery facilities (PRFs) may be another option. These facilities further process mixed plastics supplied by MRFs.

It will be exciting to see how these technologies and approaches progress, either within or alongside current recycling infrastructure.

Single-use plastics, such as straws, shopping bags and carryout containers, will be under the most scrutiny because of their limited life span for functional use, leading many consumers to decide not to use them.

From a CPG packaging developer’s perspective, these single-use products are not required to protect products during distribution and to ensure product freshness and quality. But the outcry and pushback could have side effects pertaining to plastic packaging overall.

© photka / stock.adobe.com

Corrugated and board packaging resurgent

Corrugated packaging likely will grow as it is a cost-effective option to protect consumer goods from damage in distribution, especially as more distribution occurs across the consumer buying network.

As online retail grows, corrugated packaging will become a more powerful marketing tool for brands and retailers. That means it will use higher quality graphic design and more individualized and smaller formats.

For the recycling industry, the shift from collecting corrugated packaging directly from stores to sorting it out of single-stream recycling likely will create some contamination.

Another challenge that most packaging developers and others in the consumer goods industry may not understand is how the price of old corrugated containers (OCC) plummeted from about $80 per ton in 2018 to as low as about $22 in late 2019. Obviously, this has an economic impact on MRFs and communities. As of the first few months of 2020, the price of OCC has inched up slightly to about $44 per ton, though.

Paperboard packaging (sometimes called chipboard in the recycling industry) is in even more challenging economic shape because much of it ends up in mixed paper at MRFs. That scrap paper grade has dropped to as low as $0 per ton or less in some places. Creating more demand by using more recycled fiber in paperboard packaging could help.

From a consumer goods perspective, I believe the use of paperboard packaging will depend on the applications and industry. Premium products often use glossy or embossed paperboard to convey a premium image. On the other hand, many packaging teams are evaluating how to minimize packaging to reduce costs. Paperboard can be an easier target than other materials.

Finally, rigid packaging, such as metal, glass and rigid plastic, will be challenged by flexible film and corrugated packaging as companies push for cost savings in materials and distribution.

Options such as bag in box for wine and stand-up squeezable pouches for baby food are making inroads on established packaging formats. Where rigid packaging excels is in the opportunity for using recycled content. As companies set goals to increase recycled content, especially for plastic, rigid packaging likely will be the best format to realize this goal.

In addition, smaller packaging formats will continue to grow in popularity, regardless of the materials from which they are made. Yet, smaller packages tend to be more difficult to recover at MRFs, regardless of whether the packages are made of paper or plastic.

The future of packaging

The worlds of packaging and recycling are in a dynamic space right now and intertwined in a variety of potentially significant ways going forward:

  • The financial challenges the recycling industry is facing in combination with the pressures on CPG companies for more recyclable and recycled-content packaging will be intriguing to watch.
  • A cleaner, less contaminated incoming material stream is highly desired by the recycling industry as end markets raise their quality expectations.
  • As CPG firms set goals for all their packaging to be recyclable, recoverable or compostable by 2025, it likely will lead to more communication with consumers to put more packaging in their recycling bins.
  • The technical advances with robotics, optical sorters and artificial intelligence in recycling, plus any push toward chemical recycling, have resulted in a question of when and if all packaging can be recovered, recycled or composted.

Many organizations and alliances are working together, from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. I expect many others to help accelerate change.

A future where recyclers and packagers work together can have a host of benefits, starting with making our world a better place. With increased sustainability initiatives underway, more success stories on the environmental and business profitability front are about to be written.

The author is owner of Rogue Zebra Consulting, https://roguezebra.com, which works with corporate and professional clients to advance their business strategies and professional success.