Why packaging companies need to tell their own sustainability story

The packaging industry has tended to rely on its clients to spread the word about sustainability, but this task is too crucial to be delegated any longer

When it comes to telling the sustainability story, the packaging industry has historically kept out of the limelight, leaving its consumer-facing customers, such as retailers and brands, to both write the script and deliver the lines about waste, recycling and circularity.

But now, under mounting pressure from NGOs and other pressure groups to reduce waste, the sector is having to take centre stage and address its audience directly.

In March, for instance, industry body the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) published The Beverage Carton Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond. This document pledges that members of the alliance will “deliver the most sustainable packaging for resilient food-supply systems, which is renewable, climate-positive and circular”.

The industry is engaging on several fronts, says the ACE’s director-general, Annick Carpentier. It has committed to “take action on all parts of the value chain, from sustainable sourcing to climate impact and recycling. Increasing the collection and recycling of beverage cartons to reach rates of 90% and at least 70% respectively, plus achieving decarbonisation in line with the 1.5ºC-aligned science-based targets, are examples of key goals.”

Sharing the innovation story

While collective action and communication, co-ordinated by trade organisations such as the ACE, is key to tackling global problems such as the climate emergency, several players in the packaging sector have been taking the initiative individually. 

Many companies have “already cut down their packaging use and ramped up the content of recycled materials in their products”. So says Nick Brown, head of sustainability at multinational bottling company Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), who adds: “We recently announced the transition to 100% recycled plastic in our on-the-go bottles. We recognise that it’s down to us to communicate this to our customers and other stakeholders.”

CCEP is working on a whole range of innovations. They include projects with startup CuRe Technology on a system to recycle polyester waste; with Loop Industries to increase its supply of 100% recycled PET; and with Paboco to develop a paper bottle. These initiatives all feed into Coca-Cola’s ‘World Without Waste’ environmental programme, which has a goal of collecting and recycling a bottle or can for each one sold by 2030. This initiative is promoted using on-pack messaging.

The packaging industry has tended to rely on its clients to spread the word about sustainability, but this task is too crucial to be delegated any longer

Whether acting in concert or individually, all players in the industry must accept responsibility for their part in the environmental crisis and do their fair share of work in solving it. That’s the view of Marco Ten Bruggencate, commercial vice-president of packaging and speciality plastics for EMEA at chemicals giant Dow.

“Incremental change is not enough. We need major innovation and investment to make a meaningful impact on the crisis,” he argues. “Our stakeholders have high expectations of us to drive the transformational change required. Only those companies that make the necessary leaps will survive.”

Dow has set itself some stretching environmental targets. These include making its packaging 100% reusable or recyclable by 2025; removing 1 million tonnes of plastic from the waste stream by 2030; and making the whole business carbon-neutral by 2050.

Again, technological innovation runs in tandem with public engagement. While Dow is breaking new ground with Shell to electrify steam-cracker furnaces and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the production of plastic, it’s also producing a podcast series called Plastics Unwrapped. This explores sustainability themes and, with the help of expert guests, explains some of the more complex technical issues.

Changing business and consumer culture

Much of this activity is indicative of the cultural change happening in the industry and the wider business world when it comes to sustainability. But change is also needed on the other side of the counter, suggests Gladys Naylor, head of sustainable development at Mondi Group, a producer of paper and other packaging materials.

“Reusability requires a behavioural shift on the part of consumers, as convenience and lightweighting must often be sacrificed to achieve durability,” she argues. “It will be important to consider trade-offs carefully as we transform our business models.”

Jenny Wassenaar, vice-president for sustainability at Trivium Packaging, believes that the industry needs to develop more effective education campaigns to improve public awareness of the issues it’s trying to address.

“We know, for instance, that a gap exists between the actual recyclability of materials and consumer perceptions of how recyclable they are,” she says. “Promoting sustainable packaging starts with objectively communicating to consumers the difference in the recyclability and recycling rates of materials.”

In its annual Global Buying Green Report, Trivium Packaging shares insightful research into consumers’ views on sustainability and how these influence their purchasing habits. Just over two-thirds (67%) of respondents to its 2021 survey identified as “environmentally aware”. The same proportion said that they considered the recyclability of packaging to be important, while 64% said it was important to them that their purchases came in packaging that contained at least some recycled material.

Adapt to win in an expanding market

Packaging remains a growth industry. According to a forecast published by Stratistics Market Research Consulting in November 2020, the market’s global value will rocket from just under $930bn (£670bn) in 2019 to more than $1.65tn by 2027.

The onus is on all players in the industry to truly earn their share of the considerable financial rewards on offer, says Robert de Jong, CEO of Coda Group, a producer of compostable biopolymers.

“Every manufacturer needs to present innovations to brands and retailers,” he argues. “We must take charge of the challenges facing the packaging industry. This can’t wait for legislation. We all face a seismic shift in sustainability – and those that don’t adapt will fall behind.”