Closing the Loop for a Better Future

The packaging industry has a shared ambition to become more sustainable, and minimize the impact of packaging on people and the environment.

Listening Sessions Identify Stakeholders’ Top Goals

By Zach Muscato, Corporate Sustainability Manager at Plastic Ingenuity

The packaging industry has a shared ambition to become more sustainable, and materials scientists and manufacturers play a pivotal role increasing the circularity of plastics. For example, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic is recyclable, and it was designed to be remade into new items, including carpets, clothing and beverage bottles. However, there is a misconception that PET bottles are single-use packaging.

The packaging industry has a shared ambition to become more sustainable, and minimize the impact of packaging on people and the environment.

Businesses are setting goals to improve the sustainability of their packaging, and we have conducted multiple listening sessions to identify their priorities. We have spoken to a diverse group of stakeholders from retail, healthcare and consumer packaged goods (CPG) organizations. Participants include various packaging subject matter experts, including packaging engineers, sourcing and procurement professionals, operations managers, marketing experts and sustainability leaders.

Stakeholders frequently mention corporate responsibility and accountability as drivers in the circularity movement, and share a common goal to minimize harmful outcomes on people and the environment.

Analyzing sustainability priorities

Minimizing plastic material usage was a goal for 87% of respondents, and 60% marked it as a top pick. This can entail eliminating plastic packaging material entirely, or shifting to plastic alternatives. As a close second, 80% of stakeholders are focused on maximizing PCR content (post-consumer recycled material) in their packaging to improve circularity. Additionally, 73% of stakeholders say using recyclable materials is a goal their organizations are pursuing, and nearly half prioritize using the How2Recycle instructions to provide clearer guidance to their consumers.

Top Sustainability Goals, Plastic Ingenuity 2021 Packaging Sustainability Stakeholder Study

Sustainability and packaging experts from retail, healthcare and consumer goods organizations participated in live listening sessions with Plastic Ingenuity during 2021 to share their perceptions of sustainability and circularity. A range of sustainability goals were revealed across organizations. “Top Picks” denote topics of high priority. Graphic courtesy of Plastic Ingenuity.

Calculating the return on investment

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic is recyclable, and designed to be remade into new items, including carpets, clothing and beverage bottles.

Cost and profitability are top of mind when businesses evaluate the effect of circularity and sustainable packaging efforts. Yet minor changes, when multiplied across business operations, can have significant impact. For example, initiatives such as downgauging, right-sizing and component elimination will typically decrease packaging system costs.

Adding PCR to packaging is critical to enhance circularity, but supply constraints and price pressures can pose challenges. Another improvement with an associated cost premium is using labels and adhesives more conducive to the recycling process. Furthermore, food producers are mindful of the harmful climate change implications of food waste and will not make any packaging changes that could potentially increase the risk.

Consumer influence, legislative policy, non-governmental organization (NGO) leadership and retailer directives are currently the main influencers on organizations’ sustainability strategies. But that will only go so far. Stakeholders across sectors recognize that existing recycling programs and infrastructure will need improvements to fully realize circularity and sustainability goals.

Forming a better future

Emerging technologies have vast potential in shaping the future of packaging sustainability initiatives. Advanced recycling, also called chemical recycling, was most recognized by survey respondents. Plus, many stakeholders are excited about the possibilities of new material additive technology.

When packaging is designed with the intent to be recycled, the packages that touches millions of lives – from preserving food to protecting medical devices – are optimized to be recovered at the end of their useful cycle. At that point, organizations essentially become their own material suppliers. Through investments, partnerships and mutual passion, the packaging industry can help close the loop and advance to a circular economy.

About the Author

Zach Muscato is the Corporate Sustainability Manager for Plastic Ingenuity, a leading custom thermoformer based in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is responsible for helping packaging professionals realize their sustainability goals. Zach has dedicated his career of 19 years to the thermoformed packaging industry with roles ranging from product development to commercial sales. Plastic Ingenuity conducted an additional stakeholder study during 2022, which is detailed in its 2023 Thermoform Circularity Report.

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