"Reduce, reuse, recycle" is a mantra everyone from school kids to brand managers espouses. But in most cases, people focus on that third R. However, recently there has been a renewed focus on the entire life cycle of a package. While package recyclability is certainly crucial, in reality, it is just the most visible component of sustainable packaging.
"Increasingly we are working with brand managers to take a holistic view and help consumers see that recyclability is just one aspect of the packaging life cycle," said Scott Byrne, market sustainability manager at Tetra Pak, a world leader in food packaging and processing solutions, and vice president of the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) board of directors. "Collectively, we have to consider more than just what happens at the end of life, and that means taking an entire value chain approach."
Often overlooked is the purpose of packaging
Most people, understandably, give little thought or credit to the role packaging plays. But it's far more than just a surface on which a brand manager can tout product benefits or a nuisance that ends up in a landfill. "There's a reason brands choose the packaging they do, although it often gets lost in the conversation," Byrne said.
The most important consideration is how packaging reduces food waste, which has advantages on many levels — from the obvious benefit of providing more nutrition to the avoidance of squandering the resources to harvest and transport the food. In fact, ReFED, a nonprofit group working to solve the nation's food-waste issues, names packaging adjustments as a top strategy to prevent food waste.
The right kind of packaging material prolongs shelf life and keeps food safer and fresher, meaning it's more likely to be consumed before it spoils. It also provides convenience by requiring fewer trips to the store.
And size matters, too. With today's trend toward smaller families and our on-the-go lifestyle, single-serving packages can be more environmentally friendly than larger sizes. "After all, no one is putting a liter of apple juice into their child's lunchbox," Byrne noted.
The shift toward an increased focus on packaging
When you think about packaging's contribution to safer, fresher food, it's clear it has to be top of mind for brand managers — and Byrne has noticed a sizable shift in their interest level in the past 18 months. "Until recently, many brand managers didn't really understand why something was packaged the way it was; often they assumed the packaging engineers had made those choices," he noted.
What caused the shift? First is consumer concern and demand, based on the escalating attention to plastic pollution — from litter clogging roadsides to garbage patches floating in our oceans. According to Tetra Pak research, 86% of consumers believe this awareness will only continue to increase in the next five years.
And while recycling used to present a universally viable option, there is progressively less funding for the system, primarily because many countries, such as China, no longer accept the bulk of the salvage we used to send their way. Subsequently, new limits on community recycling have put an end to "aspirational recycling" or "wishcycling," in which consumers would try to put questionable items in their bins. That practice led to recycling contamination, which has prompted many municipalities to crack down on curbside recycling. "We're currently in a transition period, where education can play a role as we place greater focus on how to recycle correctly," Byrne said.
Finally, proactive brand managers realize they need to position themselves to get ahead of future potential mandates or regulations. "Brands recognize that today sustainable packaging is a value-add that makes their customers feel confident, but eventually it will be a requirement."
Questions responsible brand managers should ask
Is a refresh to more options for sustainable packaging on your 2020 "to do" list?
Byrne finds that brand managers are diving into details like never before. "Today brand managers need to move beyond asking if a package is recyclable to delving into the total impact of the package," he said.
But they should exhibit a healthy skepticism in order to avoid making false claims to their customers. That's why, he said, it's critical for packaging companies to maintain transparency. Here are three elements brand managers should consider:
Sourcing: With an eye toward the entire packaging life cycle, it's vital to start at the beginning and ensure the package incorporates renewable materials. Then, verify that your supplier is certified by reputable third parties, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, Bonsucro and the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative.
End-to-end view of package life cycle: As the customer, Byrne urges brand managers to find out as much as they can about the facility and its system, including whether the packaging company is working to advance the recycling system in the United States through affiliations such as The Recycling Partnership or the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. One handy option for comparing sustainable solutions is an online CO2 calculator Tetra Pak offers that shows the sum of all greenhouse gases emitted during a package's life cycle.
Transparency: "At Tetra Pak, we welcome any and all questions and are equipped to take customers through our facility so they can see and touch the process," Byrne said. "As a company, we're very transparent in promoting our end-to-end view of the package life cycle."
In fact, it's part of the company's heritage, which is focused on making food safe and available everywhere. Since 1951, Tetra Pak has taken pride in providing the best possible processing and packaging solutions for food, with 25,000 employees providing solutions to more than 160 countries. "We have a commitment to our customers, but also to our planet. That's why we are so focused on what we can do as a company to reduce our carbon footprint," Byrne said.
Want to continue the conversation? Food Dive's Brand Studio and Tetra Pak are launching a podcast series on "Unpacking Food Tech" where we bring you the facts on the circular economy that will help you see things in a clearer light — and give you messages you can share with others. Catch our first episode, where two experts share some of the common myths plaguing the food industry regarding packaging sustainability.