Insights / Sustainability

How CPG Companies Can Meet Their Sustainable Packaging Commitments

Creative brainstorming of packaging ideas

In their quest for more sustainable products and packaging, the 25-largest consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies have made public commitments to increase recyclable content, minimize material usage, or reuse materials, according to the Consumer Brands Association. Also, many of these CPG companies and large retailers have pledged to make their packaging recyclable, compostable, or reusable by 2025.

But those 2025 sustainable packaging commitments may be in jeopardy, according to researcher and consultant Gartner and the latest plastics packaging progress report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).

Roadblocks to Packaging Progress

Boulders blocking a road

In late 2021, Gartner predicted that 90% of publicly announced sustainable packaging commitments won’t be kept by 2025 due to reliance on plastics and single-use packaging. Last year, the EMF declared, “The 2025 target of 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging will almost certainly be missed by most organizations. Flexible packaging and lack of infrastructure [recycling] continue to be the main barriers.”

“There are a number of reasons why well-intended corporate efforts to establish sustainable packaging are not progressing,” declared John Blake, Gartner's senior director analyst. Most plastics are not broadly recyclable, and the recycling infrastructure and aftermarket are limited, noted Blake.

In early 2023, Gartner predicted that 20% of organizations with sustainable packaging goals will shift their focus from recycling and eliminating plastics to reducing the carbon footprint of their packaging by 2026. “The packaging ecosystem has not advanced at the pace that organizations setting targets back in 2017 and 2018 had hoped for,” explained Blake. The operational, technical, and financial challenges only came to light after setting the goals.

Missed Plastic Packaging Targets

Plastic packaging

More than 250 businesses representing 20% of all worldwide plastic packaging joined the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, launched in 2018 by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the UN Environment Program. The group established several 2025 plastic packaging targets, including:

1)      Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging.

2)      Take action to move from single-use towards reuse models where relevant.

3)      Decrease the use of virgin plastic in packaging.

4)      Increase the share of post-consumer recycled (PCR) content target across all plastic packaging used.

5)      Ensure 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable.

Last year, the EMF published the fifth annual Global Commitment progress report. While the Global Commitment has shown it is possible to make meaningful progress in tackling plastic waste and pollution, it is equally clear that the world remains off-track, states the report.

For example, the report notes the market share of reusable, recyclable, and compostable plastic packaging slipped from 65.4% in 2021 to 64.5% in 2022. This share, which has hovered between 63% and 65% from 2019 to 2022, is well below the 100% target.

While there has been a greater focus on reusable and refillable packaging, with many reuse pilots announced since 2018, the market share of reusable plastic packaging has remained flat, with an average of 1.2%. In 2022, more than half (53%) of the brand and retail signatories to the Global Commitment reported no reusable packaging.

In 2018, the signatories set a 2025 weighted average target of 26% PCR content in their plastic packaging. If the group's progress from 2018 (4.7% PCR) to 2022 (11.7% PCR) continues at the same pace, the PCR content will likely increase to ~17% by 2025 but fall short of the target.

The brand and retailers group sought a 21% reduction in virgin plastic use between 2018 and 2025. From 2018 through 2022, the annual use of virgin plastic has remained unchanged at 11.9 million metric tons. Although the group has made no meaningful reductions, the entire market saw an 11% increase in virgin plastic use during this timeframe.

Fallout From Broken Promises

Companies that do not meet their sustainable packaging commitments risk public backlash and accusations of greenwashing, which can harm their brand reputation and the bottom line. If you are one of those organizations, you need to get ahead of any potential fallout. Create documentation and data showing what you have accomplished since you made your commitments and establish a road map and goals going forward.

Avoid aspirational targets and broad goals, especially in public communications. Adapt your sustainable packaging strategies to the realities of the supply chain and marketplace.

Even if your company has not made a public commitment, you are not immune from criticism because it's likely that your competitors have raised the bar on responsible packaging for every industry participant. Moreover, consumers expect all brands to be good environmental stewards.

Advancing Sustainable Packaging

Creating sustainable packaging

While some sustainable packaging commitments appear out of reach for 2025, CPG companies can still advance their sustainable packaging journeys, reduce their environmental footprint, and ultimately meet their targets.

The first place to start is a thorough examination of your packaging portfolio. Determine how your packaging strategy aligns with your company's overarching sustainability goals. Define what sustainability means to your brand. Look at the entire life cycle of your packaging from materials sourcing, design, manufacturing and filling, warehousing and storage, transportation and distribution, consumer usability, and disposal. And don’t forget about performance, functionality, and brand impact.

Select packaging substrates that are lightweight, have higher recycling rates, and possess more mature markets for recycled content. Take a close look at circular strategies that minimize or eliminate waste and extend the life of products, such as refillable and reusable packaging. Incorporating PCR content in packaging extends material life cycles, conserves natural resources, saves energy, and lowers greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Plastics Pact.

Life-cycle assessments (LCAs) accurately measure a product's environmental footprint, including greenhouse gas emissions, water use, mineral resource use, and fossil fuel use, throughout its life cycle. These measurements enable brand owners to make informed choices about their packaging materials and designs. Use this LCA data to communicate the benefits of your packaging to your consumers via product labels and marketing materials, such as “Our new package reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. That's equivalent to removing 12,000 gas-fueled cars from the road for an entire year!”

Keep abreast of new packaging regulations and policies. Several U.S. states recently enacted extended producer responsibility (EPR) packaging laws and recycled content rules with minimum PCR percentages in plastic beverage bottles and other containers. Ensure your existing packaging and any planned changes comply with these regulations.

And lastly, continue sharing your progress with periodic updates. Sustainability is not a one-time effort; it's a continuous journey. Be transparent about your current status and your road map of where you want to be in the future.

We Help Unpack Your Sustainability Potential

At Berlin Packaging, we partner with our customers to unpack their full sustainability potential by transitioning to more responsible packaging. Because we work with more than 900+ global packaging manufacturers and are not bound to a specific packaging material, process, technology, tool, or country of origin, we have virtually unlimited flexibility to create packaging solutions that optimize sustainability, brand impact, performance, cost, and material availability.

At Berlin Packaging, we help unpack our customers sustainability potential

We are committed to leading the future of sustainable packaging through our C.O.R.E. (Circularity, Optimization, Reuse & Refill, Environmental Services) model approach. As part of our support to customers in achieving their sustainable packaging goals, we provide an expansive suite of leading sustainability services ranging from market insights, life-cycle assessments, and recyclable stock solutions to custom packaging design, circularity road mapping, refillable and reusable packaging models, PCR sourcing and integration, and sustainability communications strategies.

Furthermore, we partner with like-minded organizations to address broad packaging issues and drive systemic change throughout the supply chain toward sustainable packaging practices.

Robert Swinetek

By: Robert Swientek
Date: February 26, 2024

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