From hype to reality: Rethinking sustainable packaging commitments

The real work lies in moving away from aspirational goals to concrete actions rooted in data.

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While having sustainability initiatives in place has been a business imperative for most companies for several years now, efforts specifically geared towards sustainable packaging are still a relatively new focus area for most.

The first set of modern goals were initiated around 2018. Much of the corporate, academic and government alignment was driven by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and the EMF New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. One of EMF’s key visions for the future of sustainable packaging is the commitment to 100% of plastic packaging being recyclable, reusable or compostable.

In recent years, companies have begun to set ambitious goals for sustainable packaging. However, there is a significant gap today between these goals and organizations’ ability to not only achieve authentic sustainability targets, but, more urgently, to achieve their short-term goals.

Accordingly, in Gartner’s Supply Chain Predicts for 2022 sustainable packaging was identified as an area that needs urgent attention. Specifically, the predict states “by 2025, 90% of public sustainable packaging commitments won’t be met due to reliance on plastics and single-use packaging.”

With Earth Day celebrations on April 22, many organizations reflect on progress they have made on sustainability goals. While some tout their successes, strong consideration should be given to why so few are on a path to meeting sustainable packaging commitments. There are several contributing factors that are hindering progress for many:

-Prioritizing trendy or broad goals that are not founded in science or the existing infrastructure: While well intentioned, these lofty goals put organizations in a perilous situation in which they may spend excessive resources striving for a target that is not feasible and could be viewed as green washing. Goals focused on all packaging being compostable, biodegradable, reusable, recyclable or plastic neutral should raise a red flag. These commitments often don’t have a feasible path to implementation, lack definition or simply can’t be measured.

-The network for producing sustainable packaging is currently constrained: The recycling infrastructure for collection, sorting, processing and end markets for many forms of packaging is limited. Suppliers of packaging materials have yet to fully invest in the capability to supply the quantities of sustainable packaging materials that brand owners desire. When it comes to reusable packaging, EMF notes that we have seen a slow uptake with only about 2% of packaging being reusable with many more pilots in play than permanent applications.

-Limited available data on packaging materials and recycling: Recyclability claims are often challenged by a lack of data to substantiate whether a specific material or format gets recycled in practice. Organizations need to determine not only what needs to be true for a package to be technically recyclable, but also if there is data available to support a claim. Organizations also struggle to manage specification data for packaging. For many, this information is held by suppliers or sits in legacy systems making it difficult to access and view material use in aggregate. Access to this data is essential for a sustainable packaging strategy to be successful.

Establishing a path forward

While improvement is needed to make sustainable packaging goals a reality, we have seen progress in several areas that points to a promising future.

For example, 2021 marked a watershed moment for sustainable packaging legislation. While over 40 jurisdictions around the world employ a form of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging, the U.S. saw its first packaging EPR legislations to pass in Maine and Oregon last year. The UK also passed legislation to introduce a Plastic Packaging Tax, which is now in effect and Italy and Spain have plans to implement similar legislation, possibly by the latter part of this year.

As we look towards the future, the real work lies in moving away from aspirational goals to concrete actions that are rooted in data. We need to have internal data on the packaging that we manufacture and sell and for the packaging that we purchase. Second, we need complete transparency on how our packaging fits into existing and near-term recycling infrastructure. Characteristics such as package size, color, material combination and sales location can’t be overlooked. Now is a good time to start moving forward.

John Blake is the subject matter expert for packaging, artwork and labeling in Gartner Supply Chain Research. Mr. Blake specializes in consumer and industrial packaging innovation and development process, packaging trends, packaging organization and talent management, packaging strategy across sustainability and e-commerce, IP, growth and cost optimization. He covers label and artwork management vendors and best practices.

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