Halloween of Horrors: How the Packaging Industry Can Help Reduce Waste During the Year’s Least Sustainable Holiday

By Charles Haverfield, Packaging Executive, US Packaging and Wrapping

With Americans projected to spend $10.6bn on Halloween this year alone, Halloween is big business.

But the issue of Halloween waste growing to monstrous proportions is something that neither consumers nor businesses can ignore.

Beyond discarded costumes and decorations, candy wrappers present an even bigger waste problem. The majority are made with mixed materials, usually plastic and aluminum, making them unrecyclable. For those that are recyclable, their size makes them more complex to recycle than larger conventional plastic – only five percent of which is recycled in the US – meaning most wrappers, recyclable or not, will end up in landfill.

And with consumers predicted to spend $3.1bn on Halloween candy this year – the highest amount ever – and few candy companies offering sustainable packaging options, the projected impact Halloween has on the environment is truly terrifying.

I explore the challenges brands face in promoting a more sustainable Halloween and how innovations in the food packaging industry can help overcome these hurdles.

Meeting food preservation requirements

Designing packaging that will protect and preserve packed food items is one of the greatest challenges food manufacturers must overcome when designing sustainable packaging, particularly packaging intended to biodegrade.

It’s often mistakenly thought that packaging designed to biodegrade or be compostable will limit the quality and longevity of food products since there is less resilience in this type of packaging. However, this isn’t necessarily true.

Biodegradable packaging products are subjected to stricter testing and cannot contain hazardous chemicals to ensure dangerous toxins won’t impact human health or enter the environment.

Antimicrobial packaging is one such advancement in the food packaging industry that has grown in popularity since COVID-19. Developed to fight off foodborne bacterial infections, its ‘active’ packaging alters the environment inside the packaged food to enhance food safety and quality, enabling food to last longer compared to those kept in conventional packaging despite being biodegradable. It’s thought this technology could rival traditional plastics and reduce the use of non-biodegradable packaging products currently on offer as well as reduce food spoilage, promoting a more sustainable food supply chain.

However, innovative packaging technologies are costly. For foods such as candies, which are often individually wrapped and inexpensive for consumers, this packaging method may prove too expensive for businesses to justify.

As customer demand for sustainable packaging grows and more businesses begin to adopt these new packaging systems, we’ll begin to see the cost of this drop. However, it will undoubtedly be some time before we see antimicrobial biodegradable packaging become the norm among food brands.

Balancing financial costs

Cost will always be the deciding factor in packaging design, with plastic remaining the dominating material of choice for food packaging due to its being easy to transport, versatility and cost-effectiveness.

However, according to a recent study, over half of consumers consider a product’s sustainable packaging credentials before buying and 70 percent are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, with younger generations reaching 83 percent. With such strong consumer demand, increased costs can likely be absorbed in part by customers without harming brand reputation.

The cosmetics industry, for example, has had a long history of relying on plastics and other unsustainable materials for its packaging. However, big brands such as LUSH are proving that it pays green to go green, with its customers eager to pay a premium for eco-friendly products and low-waste packaging.

The same principle could be applied to candy companies looking to tap into consumer demand for more sustainability during the Halloween period.

Preserving brand identity

Halloween is at its core a visual holiday – from the costumes we wear to the decorations we adorn our homes with. And the packaging of Halloween treats is no different.

For most consumers product packaging represents their first impression of a brand. But particularly where children are the target market, candy packaging must rely heavily on eye-catching branding to entice customers. Bright colors and shiny materials are staples among candy packaging however, switching to sustainable packaging could limit this.

For example, Nestle’s Quality Street chocolates (a holiday favorite in the UK) recently announced a change to its iconic packaging from shiny dual foil and cellulose to vegetable-based recyclable paper wrappers. Despite the move preventing almost two billion wrappers each year from entering landfill, Nestle faced backlash from some customers over the change, with many quick to critique the brand for losing its identity.

However, there are plenty of examples of sustainable candy packaging that have had little to no impact on consumers. Mars’ award-winning Snickers bar wrappers, for example, were successfully trialed across Europe in 2016. The compostable, biodegradable bioplastic wrappers were made from potato waste starch instead of traditional flexible plastic film.

Mars found that not only did the change not compromise the efficiency of its packaging lines, but the new packaging also fulfilled all product protection requirements for chocolate packaging and took a third of the energy to produce compared to oil-based plastic, all without creating a noticeable difference to the consumer.

For some candy brands who have championed traditional packaging over flexible plastics, there is no need to alter packaging at all. Foil-wrapped sweet treats are recyclable, so it’s good news for the likes of Hershey’s Kisses. Similarly, recyclable cardboard boxes are another commonly used packaging among candy brands such as Mike and Ikes, Milk Duds and Nerds.

With big candy brands such as Mars WrigleyFerrara and Hershey’s all making pledges to move to recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging within the next decade and government bodies working to put in place policies that limit single-use plastic packaging, it’s certainly promising for more sustainable Halloweens to come.

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