As a lifelong packaging engineer and proponent for packaging and all that it can do for product, consumers and society, I never thought I’d be an advocate for a world without packaging.
But let me define how I’m using the term packaging in this context. Packaging has become ubiquitous with throw away, single use, necessary evil, wasteful. It has lost its value for the consumer whom it was originally designed for. Once most packaging is opened it loses all its value. It becomes waste, garbage, and the mishandling of this seemingly low-value material is now driving a public and environmental health crisis.
Packaging used to be a valued asset for consumers and brand owners. Decades ago, without packaging, consumers would have no product to consume at all. Packaging was critical, vital, expensive. It had value and was protected and used many times over — it was an asset. If we go further back in time, packaging was the bucket that enabled retrieving water from the well, or the canteen that carried water over arid lands. Packaging was the wooden barrels to store and transport beer and wine, and the jars that preserved fruits and vegetables.
But with the invention of plastics and the constant optimization of polymer materials to simultaneously lower cost and increase functionality, packaging “lost” its value. Coupled with society’s constant appetite to consume and expectations for unbridled convenience, the throwaway society and throwaway packaging prevailed to a point we are visibly damaging our planet.
After operating under the radar since the 1950s, packaging burst into the public consciousness in the latter half of the last decade. It was driven by the environmental impact of mismanaged waste such as the famous sea turtle-straw video and increased awareness of the human impact on the environment touted by global warming advocates. Another driver: China’s National Sword policy of no longer purchasing the world’s packaging waste.
All these factors contributed to the positive but inadequate response by large multinationals and inspiring startups to reduce waste, eliminate problematic plastics and encourage increases in recycling. The issue is that these approaches are already proving inadequate considering population and economic growth and the lack of infrastructure to support the recycling commitments.
Today’s recycling infrastructure in the United States and Canada recovers less than 10% of post-consumer plastics. Globally, the numbers are not much better. Despite all the positive news and intentions by brand owners to increase recycled content of their packaging, the current supply of recycled materials can only fulfill 6% of the market demand for these materials.
Based on trends it is estimated that the global demand for plastics will triple by the year 2050 and by the same time there could be more plastics than fish in the oceans. Brand owners are leading the cause for use of post-consumer waste recycled materials, but local and national governments are far behind in creating the infrastructure and economic viability to support 2025 and 2030 brand owner commitments.
Consumers are not waiting around for the traditional brands and local municipalities to sort out this mess. TerraCycle introduced its Loop reusable packaging program at Davos in 2019 and upon launch sold out its availability of subscriptions. Later in the year several retailers announced partnerships with Loop that will enable consumers to pick up and drop off their products and reusable packaging in store. With the Loop program, consumers pay a deposit for “renting” the reusable packaging. In some cases the packaging requires a deposit of $5-10! Who would have thought that this was feasible just three or four years ago?
Consumers’ attitudes toward throwaway single-use packaging are changing, predominately led by our younger generations. In Packaging Digest’s 2019 Consumer Survey on Plastic Packaging Sustainability, 80% of millennials are buying or considering buying products without any packaging and 69% are boycotting or considering boycotting products in plastic packaging. Additionally, 77% of millennials are supporting or considering supporting bans on plastic packaging.
So will your supply chain and your brand be a leader, follower or victim of the change from single-use throwaway packaging to packaging re-emerging as a reusable asset? The demand is there, as evidenced by the early success of the Loop store. Consumers are looking for better alternatives, and it’s clear that current practices and near-term recycling commitments cannot course correct decades of wasteful behavior.
Senior Director Analyst,
Gartner Supply Chain