Four Steps to Sustainable Packaging: A step-by-step path towards more sustainable packaging
By Caroline James (COL ‘16), Director of Sustainability at Atlantic Packaging
At Atlantic Packaging, a leading provider of sustainable packaging innovation in the U.S., Caroline James (COL 2016) works with customers across an array of industries to determine the most sustainable options for their products by assessing their functionality needs as well as the most likely end-of-life scenarios.
When launching my career, I didn’t expect that my childhood fascination with trash would play any role. It shouldn’t have surprised me, though, that my personal frustration with the vast amount of waste we generate should turn into a career in making packaging more sustainable. Packaging is the largest contributor to plastic waste (about 46%), so making even a small dent can significantly decrease the waste stream.
It’s an exciting time to work in sustainable packaging; we finally have brands’ attention about why it’s critical to move to more sustainable options. The path towards more sustainable packaging is far from one-size-fits-all, but I find that the journey looks a bit like this:
1. Companies commit to sustainable packaging
Most consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies have made pledges in the last few years to use more recycled content, make packaging more recyclable, and use better materials.
Advocacy by non-profit organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which advocates for a more circular economy, has helped spur these changes. CPG companies have had more technical assistance by expert groups like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, which creates resources and collaborations to help companies navigate this rapidly evolving space.
Many companies are willing to make changes in response to feedback from consumers who want packaging that’s more recyclable or compostable. Consumers are receiving more packaging at their doorsteps than ever and want to know what to do with it when they’re done. Brands’ marketing teams (correctly) see packaging as part of the “unboxing experience,” and for many consumers, having packaging that they perceive as sustainable is an important part of that experience.
Additionally, CPG companies feel pressure from changing legislation. Many countries, including the U.S., are seeing rapid adoption of packaging extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws, which require companies to take financial and sometimes operational responsibility for their packaging when it’s disposed of. This basically manifests as taxes that companies pay based on how much of each type of packaging material they sell into a given geography. Companies typically have to pay more for difficult-to-recycle materials, like flexible plastics, and less for easier-to-recycle materials like paper. Four states, including California, have passed packaging EPR laws, and sixteen states introduced packaging EPR legislation in 2022 alone.
It’s hard to know how expensive EPR will be for companies as states develop their fee structures, but we know that companies can minimize their financial burden by reducing the absolute amount of packaging they use and by switching to more recyclable or compostable materials.
Between consumer expectations and changing regulatory frameworks, brands are feeling the pressure to rapidly make their packaging more sustainable.
2. Find opportunities to reduce the amount of packaging needed
The first thing we help businesses do is reduce the amount of packaging they’re using in the first place; the most sustainable material is none at all. This is a balancing act, though: the last thing that companies want is damaged products because of insufficient packaging. Sustainability advocates don’t want that either. The only thing worse than packaging waste is product waste, especially food.
We use creative solutions to help companies determine what packaging they’re using that isn’t necessary for the protection and look-and-feel of their product.
3. For packaging that can’t be eliminated, determine most sustainable materials
After reducing packaging, we’re back at the question: what material should they use as packaging? The short answer is: it depends on the packaging application.
We recommend, when possible, that companies make packaging out of materials that are curbside-recyclable, such as paper or rigid plastics like PET (#1 plastics) or HDPE (#2 plastics). These materials have a good chance of actually being recycled if they are clean, and most Americans have access to curbside recycling at home where they can recycle these materials.
In particular, we try to create as much packaging as possible from tree-based fiber. Fiber is a renewable resource, whereas traditional plastics are made of non-renewable fossil fuels. Fiber is strong and can be recycled five to seven times. That is, you can repulp paper 5-7 times before the shredded fibers of recycled paper are too short for the fibers to hold together.
We help companies ensure that their fiber comes from responsibly managed forests to protect forests’ role as critical carbon sinks. Fiber is also one of the easily recycled materials, and we see this reflected in the high rates of recycling for paper — for instance, about 96% of corrugated cardboard boxes are recycled in the U.S.
However, if the package can’t be made of those materials, the conversation gets more complicated. Flexible plastics, like bags, films, and wraps, are not recyclable in curbside recycling systems. If they do arrive at recycling sortation centers (called Material Recovery Facilities, or MRFs), they cause problems with sortation machinery. (Replacing flexible plastics is, I’d say, the biggest challenge we’re facing right now in sustainable packaging.) But flexible plastics sometimes have their place – they can be extremely efficient for their weight, and often do the best job at keeping products like food fresh for as long as possible.
We’re seeing myriad innovations using paper material to replace both flexible and rigid plastics, such as mailers (the envelopes you often receive e-commerce shipments in). The flexible plastic versions are not curbside recyclable, but many companies are switching to paper-based mailers that consumers can recycle curbside.
Often when packaging touches liquids or food, it makes more sense to use compostable packaging. Composting is essentially the recycling of organic materials, and using compostable packaging can help divert more food waste to composting facilities. I’m looking forward to innovations like compostable versions of sauce sachets, like ketchup packets.
3. Assess potential impacts and hone consumer messaging
We can talk theoretically about which packaging options will be the most sustainable, but before engaging in a costly switch, we test our assumptions and make sure we have a full understanding of the change’s impact.
One tool we use is called life cycle assessment (LCA) which helps us assess the environmental impact that an item has over its lifetime, such as the water or greenhouse gas footprint. LCA is a powerful tool to compare packaging options, but they’re not perfect. For instance, while they usually account for things like emissions, water use, and fossil fuel depletion, they rarely account for waste impact—how much of the packaging will wind up in a landfill or in the environment.
Secondly, we think about realistic recyclability or compostability of different items. Will a MRF be able to easily sort the material away from other materials? Will paper repulping machinery be able to handle the waxy coating on some papers? It’s not enough to tell customers to throw an item in a recycling or compost bin. Packaging professionals need to look down the entire supply chain, past the consumer’s trash can, and understand what happens to a piece of packaging. Only with this full picture can we design packages that are less likely to find themselves in landfills, incinerators, or the environment.
Lastly, we iterate on consumer messaging. If we’re going to this effort and expense to use recyclable or compostable packaging, we need to ensure the end user understands what bin to put the item in when they’re done.
This is such a fascinating and important time to be involved in changing the way we think about waste, especially in packaging. I work with large companies every day to help them transition to more sustainable packaging, and it’s satisfying when a company makes a change, especially when I see the scale at which the change will happen. Removing an ounce of plastic here or switching to paper-based material there can make enormous changes at scale. Consumers can help us make the changes even more quickly by communicating their desire for better packaging to the companies they buy from the most frequently. We all come into contact with packaging every day, and we can vote with our wallets to reward companies that choose to use the best materials.
Caroline James graduated from Georgetown College with a degree in government and completed her MBA at Yale University with an emphasis in sustainable business and industrial ecology. While at Georgetown, Caroline was a founding member of GU Fossil Free (GUFF), the campaign that successfully persuaded the University to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. She also served in GUSA as Secretary of Sustainability. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her fiancé Charles.