Off the back of an emerging trend and change in consumer behavior to buy more consciously, many have put sustainability at the top of their priority list. Although more are weaving it into their products, most businesses have not yet prioritized sustainability when it comes to packaging – design, use and disposal.
Unfortunately the ‘wasteful’ and ‘disposable’ economic model still prevails and so the majority of packaging is still single-use and non-recyclable. Or worse, even if it is recyclable, it does not end on the right path to be recycled, but ends in a landfill or the ocean like everything else. We've all seen the videos circulating on social media of turtles and whales suffering from the effects of our addiction to plastic. According to an Ellen McArthur Foundation report, only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled globally, 40% ends up in landfills and about 30% ends up in fragile environments, largely the ocean. It has been predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, and that the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production and 15% of the annual carbon budget.
There are exciting innovations happening within the sector, with pioneering organizations leading the way and investing time and resources in the development of better sustainable solutions – where packaging waste is either infinitely recyclable or re-enters the system as raw materials for other products. Ecovative Design has developed a technology that uses mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to bind together organic agricultural byproducts, such as wood chips, to produce durable, bio-based and 100% compostable materials. These have allegedly the same quality standards as plastic and foam packaging – some of their clients include IKEA and Dell.
Sometimes the problem is not the packaging itself, but the purpose it serves. For example, pizza boxes are made of recyclable materials, but when cheese, sauces and scraps stick to the cardboard, these are no longer recyclable and are even considered a contaminant for the recycling stream. This means all pizza boxes end up in a landfill. Recently at Expo West, the Jacobs team met with brands leading the change in sustainable packaging. World Centric announced Pizza Round – the first 100% tree-free compostable pizza container yet, made from 80% sugarcane and 20% bamboo which are rapidly renewable resources. The circular container reduces packaging waste, keeps the crisp and doesn’t damage toppings, absorbs the grease and sogginess, and even improves heat retention. More than a sustainable solution, it’s improving the overall experience of eating pizza.
These are not good just for environmental reasons, but can also generate business value. More and more consumers are looking for sustainable products, that is, to feel good about what they buy, how it got to them and the impact it has on the planet. As they become more aware of both their individual and environmental impact, customers demand better alternatives and hold businesses accountable. As a result, the market opportunity has grown huge, and is about to get even bigger.
However there are some limitations that don’t make the process as simple as producing better packaging solutions. Even if a café offers their customers compostable vegware take-away boxes and cutlery, what good is it doing if customers have nowhere to compost? Most of these establishments don’t offer solutions or know where to compost the biodegradable take-away boxes they give away. This means all of our best efforts result in the same old story and dance - the landfill. These businesses could educate their customers a bit more on the ideal and most sustainable journey of a take-away cup, or be responsible for the logistics of reclaiming used products. Unfortunately the logistical cost has put several businesses off, representing one of the biggest barriers to transition to a circular economy.
How can we turn the challenges of our current plastic-based economy into a global opportunity for innovation and value capture? How can we build stronger and more sustainable economies, while achieving better environmental outcomes? International brewer AB InBev has designed an accelerator program to crowdsource innovative ideas from a broad audience of creative and bright minds, and then collaborate with these entrepreneurs – while offering funding and mentoring – to co-create solutions that can move further towards their sustainable packaging goals. Involving people in the innovative and creative process might be one of the smartest ways to drive engagement, build communities and ultimately change customer behaviour.
If the urgent need for change wasn’t enough to convert some, the competitive advantage that comes with unlocking new revenue streams, along with the power to change consumer behavior makes a compelling case for moving towards sustainable packaging.