Top Sustainable Packaging Trends in 2023

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by KnowESG
Image of stacked corrugated cardboard packing materials
Seems harmless, but does it close the loop?

Just a few years ago, companies implementing eco-friendly initiatives were deemed ‘revolutionary’. Yet now, and in the face of the visible effects of anthropogenic climate change, such forward-thinking policies are quickly becoming the norm as businesses embrace sustainability.

Civic groups are advocating for more cooperative, environment-friendly initiatives to protect the planet. The United Nations reminds us that if the global population were to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, we would need almost three planets’ worth of resources in order to maintain current living standards. Even if the population hits 8.8 billion by mid-century then experiences a relatively rapid decline, as indicated by the latest report by the Club of Rome, our approach to resource use is still in dire need of revolutionary efficiency. 

For a start, reducing the waste and contamination that finds its way into our landfills and oceans is paramount, and begins with selecting environmentally friendly packaging supplies and practices.

What is Sustainable Packaging?

In its most basic form, sustainable packaging is any packaging that ultimately benefits our environment by reducing the burden placed upon it. Top sustainable packaging companies will therefore evaluate their entire life cycle and determine how it affects nature - not just the materials they use.

So, which packaging is most sustainable? Which material will have the least environmental impact? The answer depends on a variety of factors, but when packaging is first designed with environmental sustainability as a priority, its ecological impact will surely decrease over time as the design process iterates and improves on its resource flows. This starts with three guiding principles:

  • Material: Opting for eco-friendly and sustainable solutions, using 100% recycled resources.

  • Production process: By minimising the production process, supply chain, and reducing the carbon footprint where possible.

  • Reusability: Establishing a sustainable and renewable circular flow around packaging to extend its lifespan and maximise usage.

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What are the 7 R's of sustainable packaging?

We all know that ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ applies to waste management. Well, sustainable packaging follows an expanded list:

Refuse: In the first instance, reject packaging that is excessive and unsustainable.

Reduce: Minimise your use of packaging or select environmentally friendly materials for packing purposes.

Reuse: Maximise the usage of your packaging by reusing it or finding ways to repurpose it.

Renew: Create sustainable packaging solutions by using renewable materials such as plant-based plastics or biodegradables. 

Recycle: Select packaging that can be recycled, or proactively recycle your used packaging.

Replace: Swap out unsustainable packaging materials for greener and more sustainable alternatives.

Rethink: Reinvent your packaging design to make it eco-friendly and cut down on waste materials.

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Top 5 Sustainable Packaging Trends in 2023

Recyclable

How can we make sure that its outcome has a positive impact on both the environment and economy? To be eligible for recycling, post-consumer packaging must meet an extensive set of criteria (e.g., divideability, cleanliness, labelling and coloration). Therefore, producers attempting to satisfy those demands might have to use additional energy or materials to reprocess to the final standard, which defeats the object of minimising overall resource use. 

Just because a packaging product is intended to be recycled does not guarantee that it will actually be recycled. Moreover, the environmental footprint of recycling may remain unchanged or even worsen; modern technologies require considerable energy expenditure and often reduce the quality of recovered materials compared to their virgin counterparts. Additionally, fewer recyclables diverted from incinerators means less potential for recovery of energy from waste products. Taken together, these issues make it clear why purposely designed packaging can have an unsatisfactory net effect on our environment.

Adopting design approaches that prioritise effective resource use is essential for our environmental and economic future. Nevertheless, we must first guarantee that recyclability translates into actual recycling - ideally within a closed-loop system.

To guarantee your recyclable designs are viable, consider the recycling infrastructure first. Governments should match their waste disposal targets (for example, 75% of packaging waste in Europe by 2030) to local capabilities and plan for the growth of these networks at the same time as they set such quotas. If we lack the capability to effectively recycle, then no amount of well intentioned design will be truly impactful.

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Reusable

Reuse demands a rethinking of our current practices with packaging. Rather than merely tearing it open and disposing or recycling it, reuse requires more rigid materials that are able to withstand cleaning and sterilising. It also calls for an effective infrastructure that is capable of collecting, washing, disinfecting, replenishing and returning the packaging to customers—a modernised version of the 'milkman' system!

Since its debut at the World Economic Forum in January 2019, Loop has been making headlines with major brands from multiple industries - including cosmetics, personal care products and food/retail. This initiative aims to revive the ‘milkman model’, where customers can get their product delivered along with pickups of empty containers that will be washed, refilled and prepared for delivery to another customer. While there have been other small-scale attempts prior to this, Loop is set up to transform how these goods are bought and sold around the world.

Despite our anticipation of these predictions becoming reality, there are still inherent risks. As with recycling, if heavier and bulkier materials intended for reuse cause a bigger environmental impact than their re-use is worth, then the risk will be higher. In short, when looking into packaging's impact on our planet, it shouldn't be done in isolation, but rather holistically through a systems thinking approach.

Manufacturers should make sure that reuse is actually achievable in the regions where their products are consumed, and that consumer behaviour ends up compensating for any structural differences caused by material changes. Additionally, manufacturers must compute the extra impact of transporting, sanitising (and possibly tracking) reusable containers, as well as refilling them. 

To close the loop, companies must strive to increase the reuse of resources and reduce waste. This can be done through design that takes into account both the resources used and the entire life cycle of products, as well as how such closed systems can be scaled to fit market demand.

Bioplastics

Nowadays, bioplastics are becoming more commonly used to substitute for fossil-fuel-based plastics. However, while we may think these bioplastics are decomposable and/or compostable, they may not necessarily be either of those things. Even though in many technical and physical ways these  materials perform the same as]petroleum-based products, using them could only move the environmental burden by cutting down on the carbon footprint while intensifying other ecological issues such as acidification or water wastefulness.

Though bioplastics may alleviate the plastic pollution problem, we must keep in mind that they aren't a complete solution. They still require time to break down. Ingested bioplastic bags can, for example, still pose a danger to whales and other marine life by causing choking and suffocation.

To replace fossil-based packaging products with bioplastics will require much more raw material than currently available. Thus, agricultural production needs to increase - something that is already at its max and in competition with food production for land space. We would effectively be creating the same issue as with corn (and its massive subsidies, especially in the US) as a feedstock for ethanol production. Clearing forests isn't viable or sustainable either as a solution. Even if we manage to accommodate bioplastics into our system, this still won't resolve the general issue of reducing our overall waste volumes in the first place. We need a nuanced view on this, it's not a 'win-win fix'.

Flexible Packaging

Flexible packaging has become a go-to solution for many businesses looking to package products quickly and cost effectively. This relatively new form of packaging offers customers customisable options that can be made from flexible materials such as foil, plastic and paper — allowing them to create pouches, bags, and other pliable product containers with ease. With its rapid efficiency and inexpensive nature, it's no wonder why this method is gaining traction.

Flexible packaging is essential in industries like food and beverage, personal care, and pharmaceuticals. That's why flexible packages are so advantageous—they can accommodate multiple product types with ease and be customised to the required dimensions, which also helps to ship more effectively by reducing the space required for transport 

WIt's not just about convenience either; the materials are also easily manipulated into versatile shapes for customised applications. For example, you can use flexible packaging to store dry goods in your home instead of throwing away after using the product inside. Not only does this help save resources, but it also allows you to get creative and come up with innovative styles.

Eco-Friendly Inks

It's not only the raw materials used in product packaging that can be detrimental to our environment. Ink, used to brand names and product details, may also cause environmental harm. Petroleum-based inks are among the most popular options for packaging, but actually contain hazardous substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium - all of which have been proven toxic to wildlife and humans alike.

Water-based inks are a great choice for those needing to reduce their carbon footprint due to their low volatile organic compound (VOC) content and simple ingredients. They're especially popular when printing on highly absorbent surfaces, such as corrugated paperboard. Soy/vegetable inks offer another eco-friendly option; these ink types are typically derived from organic compounds like corn oil or soybeans, emitting fewer VOCs into the air throughout the printing process.

UV inks will instantly dry under the light of a UV lamp, releasing 99.5% less VOCs and eliminating any need for added coatings or protectants that regular volatile inks need. Algae ink is an excellent option - reducing carbon emissions by as much as 20%, while also showing resistance to intense UV rays.

Takeaway

While the technological solutions to drive the production of sustainable packaging are available, the question of adoption - the human factor - remains.  The challenge emerges of whether you can stay true to sustainability even when quotas require otherwise? Some of the actions mentioned here are "low-hanging fruit", but others take time and effort to adopt. As a manufacturer, in order to prioritise this long-term goal and make it the ‘norm’, finding ways around regulatory pressure and potential opposition from customers must be achieved.

When lawmakers pass laws without due consideration, the march towards sustainable packaging is stunted. To move forward from where we are today, regulated recycling rates and compulsory life cycle assessments must be implemented - anything less than that puts us in danger of making poor decisions which only push back the moment when industries will have to address this issue head-on again.

Ultimately, it must only make bottom-line sense to package sustainably and within closed loop systems, and nothing else. Packaging using extractive resources, then destined for landfill, must become moot due to the untenable associated costs, and this requires both consumer pressure and top down political and fiscal support mechanisms.

Trash Is A Geopolitical Issue

Finally, to guarantee responsible waste management across the globe, politicians and governments must look beyond their own borders. Supporting infrastructure growth in countries that import our trash is just one step toward this goal – however, we cannot forget to take action against those participating in black market activity that may lead to illicit landfills or ocean pollution. It's essential for us as a global community to work together to conserve our environment by reducing such illegal activities.

Don't forget to make your sustainable packaging choices work for your reputation, too. It's the right thing to do, so emphasise the advantages of your approach across various environmental impacts and related packaging functions in order to have customers understand, accept and support the employed strategy. 

Perhaps the pun now deserves its moment: It’s time to think outside of the box.

Bookmark our Environment page for more news on business initiatives.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is meant by sustainable packaging? 

Sustainable packaging refers to the use of materials and design methods that have a reduced impact on the environment, both in terms of production and disposal. It aims to minimise waste, conserve resources, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

What is an example of sustainable packaging? 

An example of sustainable packaging is packaging made from biodegradable or compostable materials such as paper, cardboard, or plant-based plastics. These materials can break down naturally in the environment, reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or oceans. Another example is packaging made from recycled materials, which reduces the need for new raw materials and conserves energy.

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