You Can’t Swim in a Plastic Ocean: Sustainable Packaging in 2020

You Can't Swim in a Plastic Ocean: Sustainable Packaging in 2020

The plastic straw obsession is so 2019. As we look towards 2020, what will be the next Big Green Trend? Almost every day, we see brands introducing new sustainable initiatives—sometimes it feels like we're in the midst of a race towards who can be the Greenest of them all. In preparation for the upcoming year, we're studying the $53+ billion U.S. sustainable packaging market1 in terms of rising waste management challenges, evolving consumer attitudes, and innovations in packaging design to provide recommendations for how to break from the mold and be competitive in the new year.

We're Creating Too Much Waste

The U.S. has a growing waste management problem. We're producing more waste each year and it's becoming increasingly difficult to dispose of it. From a consumer perspective, there were 262 million tons of waste produced in the U.S. during 2015, about 4.48 pounds per person, per day.* On a per capita basis, we've improved from the peak in 2000 when we collectively generated 4.74 pounds per person, per day, but overall production has risen 7.6% during the same period tied to population growth.2

What happens to the waste we're generating? In 2015 numbers:

  • 25.8% was recycled, 8.9% was composted, 12.8% was combusted for energy recovery, and 52.5% was sent to a landfill (or littered).
  • Paper and paperboard accounted for 67% of the total amount recycled, with plastics at only 4.6%.
  • Of the 34.5 million tons of plastic produced, only 3.14 million tons were recycled (9.1%).

These numbers aren't great, and they're likely to look much worse going forward because they reflect a time before China stopped accepting our recycling. China was the primary importer of global plastic recycling prior to January 2018, when they enacted a policy which banned the import of most plastics and other waste materials. In 2017, the U.S. exported about 70% of its plastic recycling to China and Hong Kong.3 That's no longer an option. While the U.S. continues to export our waste (the equivalent of filling more than 16,000 shipping containers during 2018), the recycling situation is becoming dire.4

Without being able to sell recycling waste to China, the current U.S. systems are strained. As the VP of technical and regulatory affairs for the National Waste and Recycling Association Anne Germain has said, "Costs associated with recycling are up, revenue associated with recycling is down."5 The market for recycling just isn't there. For example, the incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania–located between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware–receives about 200 tons of recycling material from up and down the East Coast every day to be burned and converted into more economically-viable energy.6 The human cost from the pollution, however, is huge: child asthma rates in Chester City are 5X the national average and cancer is pervasive.7

The 3.1 million ton increase in production of plastic products from 2010 to 2015 was primarily due to durable goods and the containers and packaging categories.8 Currently, packaging accounts for 26% of all plastics produced, and 95% of its economic value is lost after a single use.9 Plastics don't represent the only challenge. Each year 165+ billion packages, many in the U.S., are shipped—the equivalent of 1 billion trees.10

We have designed and consumed our way into a waste management problem, but this predicament also presents an opportunity for a renaissance in packaging design. Collectively, we need to either find a solution that's better than recycling or we need to develop a more viable market for recycled content.

*2015 is the most recent year's worth of data published by the EPA.

The Consumer Is More Educated and Engaged Than Ever

If the realities of poorly managed waste haven't convinced you of the need for more sustainable packaging, then the changing attitudes of consumers definitely should. More than ever, consumers not only want to know what goes into the products they buy, but they'll put their money where their values are. These Conscious Consumers consider how their personal consumption affects the public and the earth, using their purchasing power to influence change.11 They're not a small group: according to Nielsen, 48% of U.S. consumers would "definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment." Additionally:

  • Conscious Consumers spent $128.5 billion on sustainable FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) in 2018.
  • Sustainable product sales have grown 20% since 2014, four times the rate of conventional products.
  • 67% of sustainable shoppers are more likely to be digitally engaged, able to easily search for products that align with their values.
  • 88% of consumers in the U.S. and U.K. want brands to help them become more eco-conscious and ethical in everyday life.12

While Conscious Consumers are found across all generations, younger consumers are more likely to change their shopping habits.

  • Millennials are twice as likely as Baby Boomers (75% vs. 34%) "to definitely or probably change their habits to reduce their impact on the environment."13
  • 90% of Millennials will buy from a brand when they trust its social and environmental practices – and a whopping 95% will advocate the brand to their friends and family.14
  • Gen Z — already with $143 billion in spending power—is even more inclined to vote with their wallets. 67% agree that "being true to their values and beliefs makes a person cool," a sentiment that also applies towards brands.15

As packaging still provides that First Moment of Truth in Brick & Mortar, it's important to deliver messaging that resonates with consumers in an authentic way. As consumers are more aware of what waste they're generating and how they're disposing of it, the sustainability of packaging has the opportunity to be the tipping point towards purchase. The ability to "wow" at the Second Moment of Truth during unboxing or disposal is an added benefit that could lead to greater repurchase rates.

Brands That Are Innovating

Many brands are responding to shifting consumer demands to reduce waste and improve sustainability in creative ways. Here are some of our current favorites, aligning to the ubiquitous Reduce, Reuse, Recycle:

Reduce – From simplifying to forgoing altogether
  • At SXSW, Lush featured packaging-free products that shoppers could learn about via their AI—and machine learning-enabled Lush Labs app. After scanning a "bath bomb," shoppers were provided with the product name, ingredients, online reviews, and the price – as well as how the product would look underwater.16 This "digital packaging" could theoretically never be outdated and would eliminate waste entirely.
  • Procter & Gamble's EC30 reduces packaging needed by removing what is often the primary ingredient in cleaning products: water. Each product is comprised of a small "swatch" of ingredients that activate when exposed to water. By removing the largest – and heaviest – ingredient, both the (compostable) product packaging and the shipping packaging are greatly reduced.17
  • Not a newcomer to sustainable solutions, Carlsberg has removed the plastic rings from its beer packs entirely, instead using a biodegradable glue. The brand says this move will reduce its plastic waste by 70% annually.18

Reuse – Increasing the lifecycle
  • Loop has resurfaced the "milk man" concept in an effort to curtail single-use plastics. Branded, multi-use packaging made from materials like aluminum and glass are collected via a reusable shipping box and sent back to Loop for sterilization and to be used again. So far, Loop has partnered with Kroger, Walgreens, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, among others.19
  • Reusable shipper Limeloop provides brands with solutions to reduce the waste created from the rise of eCommerce. Created from "upcycled billboard vinyl and lined with recycled cotton," the shippers are durable, lightweight, and secure. After receiving their package, consumers use a prepaid label to mail the shipper back.20
  • While certainly not the first to explore a refillable system, Olay is currently testing a refillable packaging option for its Limited Edition Regenerist Whip moisturizer. Claiming that the refill pod "eliminates 94% of plastic jar waste,"21 the orders are also being shipped in a container made from 100% recycled paper.22

Recycle – Closing the loop
  • Haircare brand Kevin Murphy has been a leader in creating bottles made from 100% recovered beach plastic, recovering 360 tons of plastic per year.23 Head & Shoulders and Method have also released selected bottles made from ocean plastic.
  • Aeropowder has developed a thermal packaging material, pluumo, made from surplus feathers, responding to waste in the poultry industry. The protective packaging can be used to replace conventional polystyrene packaging.24
  • Selfridges uses recycled coffee cups from their stores to create their iconic yellow shopping bags.25 Additionally, their new garment bags are made from recycled plastic bottles and are predicted to incorporate about 400,000 bottles per year.26

Further, new materiality provides an enormous opportunity to create experiences that go beyond the product itself. Biodegradable Bee Saving Paper is infused with glucose and honey plant seeds to help replenish bees' energy levels. Suitable for products like coffee cup sleeves or disposable plates, the paper includes a UV-painted circle pattern that is visible only to bees.27 Paptic is a lightweight material made from wood fibers from sustainably managed forests that can be recycled the same way as paper. Currently being used by Hunter for shopping bags, it can stretch like plastic and has a luxurious hand-feel.26

Our Recommendations

2020 is poised to be another year of creative innovation. To continue being relevant to consumers and competitive in an increasingly crowded market, brands must make their packaging sustainable. This means going beyond merely making a product recyclable (that should be a given). We recommend thinking about your packaging through the lens of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle:

Reconsider all points of contact for your product's journey to determine packaging that is currently extraneous. How is it being shipped to the store? How is it being shipped online? How can creative problem-solving address the need for cushioning fragile items? Maximize interlocking systems to reduce the need for adhesives; rethink formulas to reduce the amount of water needed for a product. Does the product need packaging at all?
Especially for e-comm shippers, think beyond merely being able to use the same package for returns (although this is a good start). Consider adopting a refill model. Develop covetable containers that people want to keep and reuse for something else (consequently generating endorsement marketing).
In determining the recyclability and compostability of your packaging, prioritize solutions that are curbside-recyclable or home-compostable. Utilizing 100% PCR paper and board should be standard. Larger brands have the ability to shift the market demand for recycled content, but smaller brands can still be resourceful in sourcing harvested ocean plastic and other material.

Empower your teams to work together in ways they may not have before. Embrace the ideas that might initially seem "crazy" or out of reach. Consistently ask "how can we be more sustainable" with each iteration. Reject the status quo and become educated on the true end-to-end footprint of your packaging, from both an environmental and human perspective. Be ruthlessly authentic to your brand's DNA and goals and never be complacent in driving towards the future – your competition isn't.

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Morgan Seymour
Morgan Seymour
Associate Director, Strategy & Insights
WD Partners

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