Packaging With Purpose
Trends Reshaping Plastics for a Better, More Sustainable World
BY ANNA RAJKOVIC, CIRCULAR ECONOMY MARKET MANAGER AT NOVA CHEMICALS
Packaging clearly plays a crucial role in safeguarding our food and health, but also less visibly in protecting products throughout the complex global supply chain. With a growing effort to reexamine how we treat plastic waste and promote a circular economy; eco-friendly packaging solutions are in high demand, especially packaging that can be recycled and contains recycled content.
In fact, consumers now prioritize waste reduction, carbon footprint minimization and sustainability in their purchasing decisions. According to 2022 NOVA Chemicals consumer research, 51% of respondents ranked “ability to recycle the package” as the first or second most important sustainability feature of packaging. Almost half (45%) had deliberately purchased products specifically because the plastic packaging was labeled “made from recycled materials,” up from 29% in 2020. The study revealed consumers aged 44 and under are more willing to pay for this product attribute.
By designing recyclable packaging and providing clear recycling instructions, brand owners can actively involve consumers in the recycling process. Educating consumers about how to recycle and ensuring easy access to recycling facilities is essential. With today’s busy lifestyles, it’s imperative we expand home and away-from-home recycling programs if we want to see meaningful change. In response to this shift in brand and buyer behavior, plus increasing U.S. regulatory requirements, the packaging industry has witnessed several notable trends. These developments involve reduced materials, design for recyclability, and incorporation of recycled content.
Manufacturers are adopting recyclable and recycle-ready designs by focusing on mono-material structures consisting of PE, PP, or PET, eliminating hard-to-recycle plastics or components and providing clear recycling instructions. Innovative approaches, such as incorporating recycled content into packaging or offering take-back programs, are providing alternatives to landfill disposal and are closing the loop on the product lifecycle.
Industry players are also collaborating on circular initiatives across the value chain to further support sustainability goals. For example, we recently announced an agreement to supply recycled polyethylene resins to a leading manufacturer of flexible packaging.
We also see innovation within first production plastics, where traditional multi-material laminates are being replaced with mono-material designs through reliance on new resins like high-density polyethylene (BOPE-HD) film, which offers a fully recyclable alternative to non-recyclable mixed material films. Not only does this increase what can be collected, but it also improves the quality of what is being collected, since this type of packaging often makes its way back into the store drop off stream.
Material reduction and design optimization
Minimalist and lightweight packaging design are gaining momentum as brands aim to reduce material usage and product carbon footprint while maintaining product integrity. Thin-walled containers, flexible packaging, decreased head space, and innovative folding techniques optimize material usage and storage space, minimizing waste generation and transportation costs.
While plastic packaging can often provide the lowest carbon footprint when compared against alternatives like glass, metal, and paper, we do see a significant brand owner focus on reducing prime plastic usage due to the growing sentiment that plastic waste is not being handled appropriately and continues to grow. We can and must expand recycling as our way to shift our mindset from waste to resource, from linear to circular.
We also need to consider the current recycling infrastructure and improvement opportunities that can play a vital role in ensuring a consistent supply of post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic. Mechanical recycling technology is available today and is currently the most widely used and environmentally friendly recycling method for plastics. Its carbon footprint is the lowest of all recycling options and is a fraction of prime PE production. Investing in expansion of mechanical recycling over the next several years will support commitments to the circular economy, as well as corporate environmental, social and governance goals.
Realizing a circular future
The trends in consumer packaging reflect a growing commitment to sustainability and circularity. By embracing sustainable materials, minimalist designs, circular economy principles, and smart packaging technologies, the industry is being responsive to public demands and oncoming regulatory requirements. In today’s environment, we are relying heavily on brand owner commitments to initiate this vital shift in packaging, predominantly those seen in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).
However, we know that commitments are not actions, and time is running out. Together we can create actionable plans that allow us to transform plastic waste into a resource. We must all stay at the forefront of these trends and actively participate in creating long-term solutions as consumers and brands continue to demand sustainable options. Doing so can preserve our resources and ensure a healthy planet for future generations.
About the Author
Anna Rajkovic is the Circular Economy Market Manager at NOVA Chemicals. She is responsible for the company’s PCR product portfolio, and more broadly driving circularity with plastic converter customers and across the entire plastics value chain. She has been deeply involved with industry associations, and is serving on the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) Market Development Committee and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste Design and Market Solutions Thematic Expert Group. She has also represented NOVA Chemicals at IPANA, RIBCA, PDI, PPI, ASTM and CSA.
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