In 2021, Gartner made the stark prediction that 90% of sustainable packaging commitments scheduled for completion in 2025 will not be met. As a result, Gartner says that in some cases, organisations will begin to prioritise carbon emissions reduction over recyclability and plastic elimination goals.
How will consumers and regulators react, and what can companies do to set more realistic targets? We spoke with the source for these predictions – John Blake, senior director analyst with Gartner’s Supply Chain Practice – to find out more.
Gartner predicts that a number of organisations will shift their focus away from recycling and eliminating plastic to reducing the carbon footprint of their packaging by 2026. Could you give us a brief overview on this prediction, as well as some background?
In our research, we find that many organizations have indiscriminately selected high-level or trending sustainable packaging goals to be their corporate commitments. This has resulted in many organizations facing the inability to deliver these goals by their targeted dates.
Not all products and packaging are created equal and as a packaging industry, we have learned a great deal in the past five years regarding what can be recycled, the role of packaging in driving product protection and operating efficiency, and various supply chain challenges associated with moving away from single-use packaging.
We should not understate the significant advancements in sustainable packaging that have been achieved by many organizations. There are many positive aspects of sustainable packaging commitments to celebrate. We see refillable pilots growing and retailers sharing their learnings and the use of fiber (paper) based packaging in the food industry and even innovations such as paper bottles for liquids. In addition, PET bottles made from 100% recycled PET are becoming a common site in the food and beverage category.
But many companies continue to face technical challenges in delivering goals such as 100% of packaging being recyclable and eliminating reliance on virgin plastics. Feasibility challenges exist despite organizations spending a significant amount of resources on these initiatives. For many, the solutions are just not there at this time or the ability to scale pilots is still out of reach.
Taking these challenges into consideration, and organizations’ desires to reduce their impact on the environment through the choices they make with packaging, we predict there will be a growing interest in assessing the impact of packaging designs through carbon footprint or the life cycle assessment (LCA) of packaging.
It can be argued that a proper LCA gives the total picture of the impact on the environment beyond just solely assessing if a package is “good or bad” based on its recycling or recycled content status. LCAs have been historically complex and viewed as resource-intensive, but with the growth in software applications and the growing democratization of packaging specification data – LCAs are expected to be more accessible than they have been in the past.
What are your thoughts on the reasoning behind moves like this?
Consumers respond well to terms like recyclable, 100% recycled content, and bioplastics, and admittedly LCA or carbon footprint of packaging is harder for the average consumer to relate to.
But many organizations are learning that the complexities of manufacturing infrastructure, recycling infrastructure, recycling technologies, product protection, regulations, and end markets for recycled materials make achieving goals difficult.
Despite much hard work and effort, there are just not viable solutions for some of these goals in specific industries and applications. One could argue if there are solutions, but it’s just more expensive for brands to follow through. But in many instances, there is just not a technically feasible solution at this time.
Measuring and communicating the sustainability of packaging through another measure may be a requirement for some organizations. Now there is a risk of “goalwashing,” but I believe consumers have an appetite to understand the rationale and reasoning behind the products and packaging they consume.
With regulatory bodies like the EU still focussing in large part on packaging reduction, recycling, and reuse, do you think that there could be a dangerous disconnect between how companies and legislators see the future of packaging sustainability?
If companies are required to have their packaging be recyclable but there is no infrastructure to recycle that material at scale or if it’s too costly for municipalities because there is no aftermarket for those materials – then there is potential for a disconnect. If fees associated with Packaging EPR or Plastic Taxes do not warrant changing packaging, where feasible, then we run the potential of there being no improvement to packaging related to recycling and reuse. However, rising costs to companies will occur and are likely to be passed to consumers.
Legislation that focuses on packaging reduction can be aligned to promises that focus on reducing the carbon footprint of packaging.
Reaction from regulators and the public is, for obvious reasons, likely to be fierce if companies do indeed decide to renounce their previous goals. What effect could this have on future legislation and general discourse around packaging sustainability?
Renouncing or adjusting goals will be difficult. However, we should approach this topic with the idea that companies had the best intention when they set their sustainable packaging promises. Within the packaging industry, we know a lot more now about the feasibility of these goals than we did just a few short years ago.
Legislators and consumers need to be educated about the capabilities and limitations of the current recycling infrastructure. There remains an ongoing need to promote and develop end markets for post-consumer recycled packaging and, with that, investments in technologies to produce higher value post-consumer recycled materials, currently packaging is often “downcycled.”
LCAs are a way to measure the total impact of packaging on the environment. It’s potentially a difficult concept to educate consumers, retailers and legislators on, but it can be argued that it’s a more realistic measure of a packages total impact on the environment – including its ability to be recycled or reused.
If your prediction is correct, and companies do start to back away from existing pledges, how can they – and wider society – ensure that the new pledges are successful?
Sustainable packaging strategies must be rooted in data. Data about the types of packaging used, how it’s made, and if it’s recyclable where it’s sold. Strategies must also include data on product protection and the related manufacturing infrastructure.
Many companies will be able to continue to focus on improving the recycling of their packaging, but to be truly successful there needs to be an economically viable path to recycling those materials and formats and end markets must be created to utilize and put a value on that recycled material.
Customers and consumers must also be educated and committed to playing their part. There is a need to educate and inform in order to assure we are all reducing packaging’s impact on the environment and with that – our individual impact on the environment. Materials that are recyclable, must be handled properly. Packaging that is reusable, must not be the victim of leakage or misuse.
Sustainable packaging is complicated – we must all continue to inform, educate and take responsibility for being part of the solution.