How close are brands to meeting their ambitious 2025 packaging sustainability targets? A sobering report from Gartner has suggested that up to 90% of these objectives won’t be met. So, why is this happening, and how can the industry avoid making the same mistakes in the future? Returnity’s CEO, Mike Newman, tells us more.
In 2020, Taco Bell became the latest in a long list of brands and retailers to declare that by 2025, 100% of their packaging would be recyclable, reusable, or compostable. I immediately had two reactions:
- I will forevermore call this the Taco Bell Tipping Point, because nobody would think of Taco Bell as a progressive voice on packaging waste. If they are making this commitment, it represents a somewhat shocking mainstreaming of what had only a few years earlier been seen as radical.
- This is a wildly unrealistic goal (also, they should bring back the 7-Layer Burrito).
It wasn’t just unrealistic for Taco Bell of course; getting to 100% requires drastic, society-level changes. Every company that signed up for this target had to operate within the patchwork of local, regional, national - and international - regulations which can lead to conflicting requirements.
They had to solve the technical challenges around updating packaging formats to fit these new criteria. They had to align to the fractured, inconsistent infrastructure necessary to support the collection and processing of their packaging, be it cleaning and redeployment for reusables, sortation and reclamation for recyclables, or industrial composting for compostables.
But perhaps most important of all is that consumer behaviour is hard-coded and difficult to change no matter how compelling the product or service. The BlackBerry was first widely released in 1998 and the iPhone launched in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2013 that smartphones finally exceeded “dumbphone” sales globally.
If it took decades for one of the most compelling and successful technologies in modern history to become dominant, why would we ever think that something as simple as how we interact with packaging could happen faster?
It therefore felt both obvious and depressing when the recent Gartner analysis declared that 90% or more of companies will miss that 2025 deadline.
It’s still not clear how we ever get to this “zero waste” utopia, and I’m struck by the dichotomy of leaders in the space that privately acknowledge that truth yet continue to evangelize this vision for the future.
Gartner has termed this period the “Trough of Disillusionment,” and it perfectly captures what I hear from leaders at established brands and retailers who are justifiably pulling back from unsustainable business and operational models that they tested as part of the 2025 target.
Despite this, there is still a tendency for startups - and the media - to make breathless declarations about the “future of packaging” that presume step-function changes to behaviour and infrastructure. As Gartner rightly points out, continuing down this path has created a real potential for public backlash. The meaningful progress that has been made instead gets lost in the stark reality of fewer than 10% of companies meeting their goals.
It is therefore time we replace the simple messaging of “100% by 2025” with more grounded, obtainable targets.
- For recycling, we must acknowledge that decades of work have still left us largely spinning our wheels for most materials and in most markets. The move towards more mono-material packaging that is easier for consumers to understand and municipalities to process is therefore a promising development.
- For compostables, it is clear that infrastructure and consumer awareness are significant hurdles to overcome. Utilizing compostables in closed-campus contexts that minimize the potential for material contamination is a smart use of the technology.
- For reuse, Gartner suggests that the strongest opportunities are in B2B and closed-loop applications rather than broad direct-to-consumer deployments.
I’m proud that we’ve been ahead of that curve at Returnity. B2B shipping has become our #1 growth driver, thanks to long-standing relationships with clients like Happy Returns by PayPal, and newer collaborations with Vuori and more who utilize our innovative reusable shipping boxes to move goods between warehouses and stores.
And our work supporting Walmart, The Rounds, and other grocery retailers “buy online, pick up in store” and home delivery channels is an increasingly successful pathway for reuse, as we learn how to leverage their close contact and repetitive customer engagement to collect and redeploy reusables.
Gartner thinks we don’t hit the “Slope of Enlightenment’’ until 2026 and beyond, but I think we can get there faster if we start communicating more transparently and prioritize progress over packaging purity. By celebrating and amplifying what is already working today, we will achieve true transformation.