Packaging Waste Management Is In the Spotlight

Expansion of e-commerce is causing a spike in unrecyclable materials.

Best Practices for Circular and Sustainable Packaging

By Allison Berg, Sustainability Manager at DS Smith

With the unprecedented expansion of e-commerce, packaging is now ubiquitous in our daily lives.

E-commerce sales were $870 billion in the US in 2021, a 14.2% increase over 2020 and a 50.5% increase over 2019 – and growth in online shopping is still gaining momentum. Package shipping has reached 87 billion parcels in volume globally and was originally projected to hit 200 billion parcels in 2025 according to pre-COVID-19 estimates, and many analysts believe the actual volume will exceed these projections.

An unintended and worrisome result of this volume? A spike in unrecyclable materials, such as single-use, or “problem” plastics. That has strained the environment and brought the topic of packaging waste management into public view because of two unresolved challenges: sustainability and recyclability.

The dirty dozen

Unlike renewable, sustainable and 100% recyclable corrugated packaging, problem plastics are inherently non-recyclable. While there are efforts underway to tackle this problem, solutions could be years away from being a reality, if at all. Only a small part of plastic packaging enters any kind of “circular economy.”

Despite their best intentions, many consumers don’t recognize how best to support recycling efforts. That’s in part why our company identified “The Dirty Dozen,” popular consumer items that contain plastic and are cause for concern when put into recycling streams:

  1. Cardboard food and pulp trays
  2. Food cartons with plastic layers
  3. Potato chip tubes
  4. Glittery gift wrap and greeting cards
  5. Padded envelopes, many containing a high volume of plastic
  6. Sandwich wrappers that contain plastic lamination
  7. Insulated food delivery packaging
  8. Coffee bags and pouches with metal coatings that can break into glitter-like parts
  9. Wax and silicone papers like those on sticks of butter
  10. Fast food soft drink cups that can be double laminated, making it difficult to be broken down and retrieve the recyclable fibers
  11. Junk mail with adhesive
  12. Plastic wrappers and laminated coatings

Corrugated packaging can be recycled anywhere from seven to 10 times and turned into new material ready to be used again and again.

Plastic alternatives

If we want a future of fully circular material flows, we must move away from plastics and consider alternatives. Now is the time to make bold decisions to move to a circular economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.

We currently have the technology to eliminate 80% of waste at the design stage, and paper-based solutions are a renewable, sustainable resource. Corrugated packaging can be recycled anywhere from seven to 10 times and turned into new material ready to be used again and again.

Organizations need to harness alternative materials and generate opportunities with sustainable redesigns in packaging. In fact, our company has eliminated the need for 313 million units of plastic since 2020 – boosting customers’ packaging recyclability and reducing negative impacts on the environment.

Circular packaging design

Manufacturers, retailers and others can use the best practices for circular design we developed in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, including:

  • Protect brands and products– Designers must ensure the packaging protects products and all the resources invested in them. Damaged products from poor packaging have an economic and environmental impact.
  • Use no more materials than necessary –Optimizing the use of packaging materials saves resources and reduces waste.
  • Design for supply cycle efficiency– Developing an end-to-end approach that considers every step of the way, including storage and warehouse optimization, customers’ factories, packaging lines and the layout of products within boxes for stacking in delivery vehicles.
  • Keep packaging materials in use– Quality, durability and recyclability are key to keeping packaging products and materials in use for as long as possible. This means maximizing the use of the fibers and recognizing the value beyond the primary function.
  • Find a better way – Challenging ourselves and our customers to develop circular packaging solutions.

Based on our research, with potential savings of $46 billion a year and 122 million tons of carbon dioxide on the line from better packaging design, the industry must act now and fully embrace these principles.

About the Author

Allison Berg is sustainability manager for DS Smith North America, where she manages the delivery of the company’s Now & Next Sustainability Strategy, which focuses on closing the sustainability loop through better design, protecting natural resources by making the most of every fiber, reducing waste and pollution through circular solutions and equipping people to lead the transition to a circular economy.  Learn more at

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