A common concern expressed by the recycling and composting community is that the rapid rate of innovation by the packaging community hinders its ability to match recovery technology, resulting in a disconnect between the packaging placed on the market and what can be recovered to create a circular packaging system.
Recyclers often note that from the time one begins to plan for the development of a materials recovery facility (MRF), it takes an average of 10 years to complete. In that time, packaging can shift dramatically as converters and brands replace materials, develop new formats, and launch innovative technologies designed to make packaging more effective in its roles—and to be recyclable. Composters bemoan the challenges in identifying compostable versus non-compostable materials or potential concerns regarding inks, coatings, or other additives that may be used in packaging.
Although the packaging community seeks circularity, packaging must be designed for more than just recycling or composting. Packaging designers must also consider product damage or spoilage protection, health and safety issues, and consumer use as the package moves across multiple distribution systems. Packaging also serves to help promote and educate. Additionally, any changes made to a package itself must be coordinated with packaging machinery capabilities, distribution channel needs, and consumer demographics. Any changes to packaging materials or formats can impact all of these variables. Finding the right balance requires collaboration at the design and recovery phases.
A collaborative study by AMERIPEN—American Institute for Packaging and the Environment and the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI), “Packaging Compass: Evaluating Trends in Packaging Design Industry,” examines packaging trends over the next decade. While the study focuses on materials and packaging formats expected to grow or decrease over the next decade, data included in the appendix from the full survey for the study explores packaging design and producer priorities.
To understand what materials are most frequently used in packaging, the survey asked 348 consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies about materials they use out of four materials choices: plastic, paper, glass, and metal. Many indicated the use of two or more materials, with 75% of all respondents selecting plastic, 61% selecting paper, 14% selecting glass, and 13% selecting metal. This is important because it indicates packaging designers see value in plastics despite a public campaign to reduce their use.
Packaging design requires the evaluation of several fac-tors and attributes: the shipping of the package (direct to retail versus direct to consumer), the user of the package, the access to materials, or the filling of the product. All of these factors influence what a designer can amend when looking to adopt a new packaging material or redesign a format. With this balance in mind, the survey asked packaging professionals to indicate what—if any—strategies come to the forefront of their design principles. Designing for recycling topped the list as a key priority. Simple changes like swapping a label or reducing materials can be minor changes that may have little to no impact on other system functions further down the packaging value chain, but they have significant value in increasing recyclability.
Behind designing for recyclability, packaging designers indicated an interest in packaging sustainability design strategies that emphasize packaging optimization by reducing the amount of material or weight within a specific package and its operations. This prioritization indicates that designing for circularity is important to the packaging industry, but inasmuch as it can reduce costs and create efficiencies while still retaining product protection. Designers are looking to improve recyclability as evidenced by the rise of design guides like the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability or the American Forest & Paper Association’s Design Guidance for Recyclability.
However, our trends data does not indicate that packaging designers are necessarily open to replacing packaging materials that are harder to recycle with more recyclable materials. While this may be happening in certain cases, survey respondents indicated a continued interest in plastics, in particular flexible plastic. Interest in flexible film packaging formats reflects designers’ interest in packaging optimization as they seek to design packaging that can provide equal protection with less material and/or weight. When queried further into replacement strategies, designers indicated a desire to shift to more mono-material packaging films but not to eliminate these formats.
What does this mean for packaging circularity? As CPG companies express more interest in packaging circularity and increased use of recycled content, the U.S. packaging system is beginning to work in greater coordination with the recycling community to facilitate the necessary innovation and investments to ensure we can optimize packaging for environmental benefit. Innovation into mono-material packaging and design for recyclability will remain important, but equally important will be innovation into the best ways to collect, sort, and reprocess flexible films so we can create increased circularity. “Packaging Compass” identifies several strategies for investment and innovation, which are necessary starting points to begin this essential dialogue.
Dan Felton is executive director of AMERIPEN, which represents the U.S. packaging value chain by providing policymakers with fact-based, material-neutral, scientific information. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rebecca Marquez is director of custom research for PMMI and lead researcher for “Packaging Compass.” Reach her at email@example.com.