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The Future of Packaging: Tackling Plastic’s Plight

CPG leaders are marshaling resources amid heightened scrutiny in a no-waste world
Photograph: Shutterstock

The statistics are sobering. Virtually every piece of plastic ever produced still exists and there is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way, according to Earth Day Network, Washington, D.C. It is thus little wonder that 100,000 marine creatures die every year from plastic entanglement—and those are the ones that are found, according to Ocean Crusaders, an organization based in Australia that specializes in waterway cleaning. These same creatures consume the plastic, which we humans then consume from our dinner plates, meaning there’s plastic in us too.

Containers and packaging constitute 30% of all waste, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the large amount that isn’t recycled is dumped into landfills or is incinerated, leaving behind noxious air pollution. It’s a compounded problem that continues to mount, with forecasts predicting that the amount of plastic will increase fourfold by 2050.

But moves are afoot to change this dire state of affairs. Retailers and consumer packaged goods companies are looking for new ways to provide products that eliminate or vastly reduce packaging, such as proliferating bulk food sections and experimenting with processes that use less plastic. Scientists are also devising ways to make CPG packaging compostable or 100% recyclable while circular systems are being developed in which consumers refill containers for commonly used household items.

But to make change happen on a big scale, everyone needs to be on board. Urged on by consumers that are increasingly decrying excessive packaging that is perceived as being wasteful at best, and reckless at worst, many American companies, which are also not happy with the present state of affairs, are looking for solutions to what is becoming a very grave problem of crisis proportions.

The solutions are complex and multifold. “When you think about the myriad products, and the ways consumers use them, we need lots of solutions,” says Meghan Stasz, VP of packaging and sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Arlington, Va.

Reducing packaging is important not only to minimize the effect it’s having on the world but also to improve public perception. The people who care most about packaging waste are millennials and Gen Zers, who are increasingly the customers of tomorrow.

“Packaging has become a hot topic of late because shoppers are becoming more concerned about their impact on the environment, especially younger shoppers,” says Tory Gundelach, VP of retail insights for New York-based consulting agency Kantar. “And more and more, they’re happy to put their dollars behind the companies that align with them.”

According to research from Kantar, nearly two-thirds of millennials and Gen Z consumers say they prefer “brands that have a point of view and stand for something.”

The Circular System 

The solution to plastic and packaging reduction that’s perhaps gaining the most traction is the system of refillable, reusable containers.

Loop—which offers products in reusable glass and steel containers that are delivered to and picked up directly from consumers’ homes—launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a year ago. It has since debuted pilot programs in New York and Paris.

Developed by Trenton, N.J.-based TerraCycle, Loop has the backing of CPG giants such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestle, as well as smaller companies such as Nature’s Path. It offers about 100 brands and is constantly adding more, including private label items. “We treat small companies the same as large ones,” says Benjamin Weir, business development manager of North America for TerraCycle. “We help them expand and show them that packaging is a great way to differentiate.”

Loop Tote TerraCycle

Photograph courtesy of TerraCycle

The more brands involved, the greater consumer adoption of Loop is likely to be, he says, because shoppers will be able to meet all their needs at one store—or through one e-commerce site—“and we can capture as much of their basket as possible.”

Here’s how Loop works: Customers purchase products through its website, and when the products are depleted, they leave the empty packages on their doorstep for free collection by UPS, a Loop/TerraCycle partner, which returns them to Loop for sanitization and reuse. Each container requires a deposit, which is refunded upon its return or at the end of a subscription. Items that can’t be reused, such as diapers, can be collected for recycling.

Retailers are joining the Loop throng too. The Kroger Co. and Walgreens are credited as founding retailers in the U.S. “Our commitment to innovative solutions on our path to Zero Hunger Zero Waste aligns perfectly with Loop’s mission to create a convenient circular packaging platform for consumers,” Jessica Adelman, president of The Kroger Co.’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste Foundation, has been quoted as saying.

Being involved with Loop is almost the cost of doing business today, says Virginie Helias, chief sustainability officer of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble. “Nine of 10 consumers now say they have a more positive image of a company when it supports a social or environmental cause, and half say they make purchase decisions based on a shared belief with the brand,” she says.

Procter & Gamble is committed to making huge changes, and it fully backs the Loop system. “The idea of getting rid of disposable packaging and replacing them with beautiful, durable, refillable packaging is a huge idea and we are very committed to make it work,” Helias says.

All of the companies involved with Loop are faced with a new and exciting challenge: creating new packaging. This packaging is much more durable, plastic-free and is good-looking enough to sit on any home’s counter.

In—and Out of—the Loop 

Companies need to step up and take responsibility, says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York: “If you introduce a package, your responsibility has not ended, and it should not be the responsibility of the consumer. [Companies] need to say they’re responsible for packages through the end of their life. That’s what’s powerful about a program like Loop.”

Gundelach of Kantar supports a program such as Loop because it takes that responsibility away from the consumer. “It’s more likely to resonate than asking the shopper to do it themselves,” she says.

And while this isn’t a perfect solution—she points to the emissions from the pickup vehicles, for example—Gundelach believes it’s a step in the right direction. “To do this on any meaningful scale is extremely complicated and takes the partnership of many different parties, but I think this is a longer-term solution,” she says, adding that companies in the CPG industry will have to reach some agreements that they will use the same sort of process.

The losers in the Loop system could be the retailers, who may see sales declines for products that are now delivered by the modern-day “milkman.” But Stasz of GMA doesn’t anticipate that, noting that she “can’t imagine it would have more of an effect than e-commerce.”

While the e-commerce model is phase one for Loop, eventually consumers will be able to shop for Loop in the stores of the company’s retail partners. This should start in 2020, Weir says, and is phase two.

This program will be implemented through retail partners such as Kroger. It will go live in Kroger and Walgreens at 25 to 50 stores in a condensed geographic area. At these stores, consumers drop their used packaging in a Loop bin and pick up a new product in reusable packaging from the shelf. This would be a pay-as-you-go model vs. the e-commerce program, which offers consumers the option of subscription on demand.

Consumers “will be able to shop and act as normal and have the option for durable, reusable packaging,” Weir says. He could well be right. According to GMA, nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans say they’d be very likely to buy goods in refillable packages.

The Product Line 

CPG companies are making their own mark on plastic reduction. Two years ago, Pepsi launched Drinkfinity, a reusable bottle/recyclable pod system for flavored water. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola is making a bottle from recycled marine plastics; Colgate unveiled a new recyclable toothpaste tube; Nestle committed to 100% reusable and recyclable packaging by 2025; and Unilever has vowed a 50% plastic reduction by the same year.

London-based Unilever is also going out on many different limbs. In the Philippines, it launched the Hair Refillery, a shopping mall pilot that lets consumers refill bottles from brands such as Dove and Tresemme. In the U.K., Cif cleaning spray is now sold with refill cartridges that consumers put in existing bottles and fill with water. The trigger heads on the original spray bottles are designed to be used thousands of times. And in Chile, Unilever is piloting an app-powered, intelligent dispensing system that uses electric tricycles to deliver laundry detergent to homes.

Companies are either reducing the plastic (using less per product), finding a plastic that can be 100% recycled or exploring alternatives, which include bioplastics produced with bacteria, seaweed, corn, mushroom rot, wood pulp and even shrimp shells. However, CPG companies are still facing some backlash because they’re still producing single-use products.

“We’re continuing to see a major commitment by the CPG companies to improve their packaging,” says Stasz of GMA. “That means different things to different companies. To packaging design, to new kinds of materials, to delivering products to consumers in new ways and in new formats. From research we did this year, all the largest 25 CPG companies in the world have made public commitments that 100% of their packaging be recyclable or compostable by 2030 and some as soon as by 2025.”

Recycling in itself has become a problem. In 2018, China stopped accepting U.S. imports of recyclable materials, and across the U.S., recycling is becoming more expensive. So much so that many towns and municipalities to eliminate curbside recycling programs.

This is all the more important because recycling is becoming a big issue: Less than 14% of plastic packaging—the fastest-growing form of packaging—is recycled, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Eighty-seven percent of Americans told GMA they are very concerned about single-use plastics and packaging waste.

It’s vital that more emphasis be placed on recycling, says Melissa Craig, senior manager of packaging sustainability for Unilever North America, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Unilever’s new packaging is designed with PCR (post-consumer resin), but in order to have sufficient PCR, “we need everyone contributing to the circular economy, which means ensuring everyone is recycling. The more we can get consumers to recycle, the greater the supply of PCR for packaging so we can use less virgin plastic.”

At the Store Level 

Retailers also play a big part in reducing the amount of plastic packaging waste by taking a stance. Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s announced it had removed nearly 4 million pounds of plastic from its stores last year. This included the introduction of biodegradable bags for flowers and greetings cards, removing excess packaging and switching to recyclable trays for fresh meat.

Walmart has committed to incorporate at least 20% PCR content in the packaging of its private label line by 2025. This, the retailer says, will also be 100% recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable. The Bentonville, Ark.-based chain is also encouraging suppliers to eschew all PVC (polyvinyl chloride) by 2020.

Minneapolis-based Target will eliminate expanded polystyrene foam packaging from private label products by 2022, and Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco ditched PVC clamshell packaging, which not only can’t be recycled but also releases toxic chemicals into the environment as it degrades.

So it’s no surprise that Whole Foods Market is making a difference too. Its changes include switching to smaller bags for produce; replacing hard-plastic rotisserie chicken containers with bags that use about 70% less plastic; eliminating polystyrene/Styrofoam meat trays; and using salad boxes made of 100% commercially compostable material in its prepared foods department.

Away From Home 

More is happening abroad. South Africa’s Pick n Pay grocery chain is experimenting with “nude zones,” where consumers fill their own containers with produce laser-etched with codes. Metro in Quebec started allowing customers last spring to fill their own reusable containers with meat, seafood, pastries and ready-to-eat meals, and Ekoplaza in Amsterdam now carries more than 700 products in plastic-free packaging, which looks like plastic but is actually made from all-natural, biodegradable materials.

In the U.K., Waitrose has introduced packaging-free aisles; Tesco has asked its suppliers to look into packaging solutions and vows to have only recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025; Iceland is getting rid of plastic packaging for its entire private label line and has also committed, over the next five years, to using recyclable paper versions of food trays to enable it to become plastic-free by 2023; Sainsbury’s is halving its packaging by 2020; and the Co-op says a whopping 80% of its products will be “easy to recycle” by 2020.

In Europe, there have been many moves to reduce plastic. Americans are simply less concerned than Europeans, says Neil Saunders, managing director and retail analyst for GlobalData Retail in New York. “Americans have more of an ambivalent attitude toward environmental issues and this results in less pressure on the industry to institute change,” he said. “Regulation is likely more lax in the U.S. than in some parts of Europe, where recycling is now mandatory for householders.”

Bulk Foods Bulk Up 

What can make an enormous difference in the amount of packaging waste a store produces is having a bulk department. At Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market, bulk food sections are large and even larger in new and remodeled stores. In some locations, bulk accounts for a massive 30% of a store’s selections.

However, as anyone who’s ever used them can attest, refilling containers—particularly liquids—can be time-consuming and messy. Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillanDoolittle, Chicago, thinks bulk sections have their place in stores “where the customer is sufficiently committed, such as stores offering a broad selection of natural/organic products.” However, he says, conventional stores may need to offer more convenience and experience, such as “some sort of concierge service,” where customers would drop off their containers to be refilled and pick them up at the end of their shopping trip.

Around the world, packaging-free stores are opening up, aimed at reducing the swathes of plastic and heightening consumers’ awareness of this problem. The trouble is, are these stores catching on yet, or are they just attracting the ultra-eco-conscious?

In New York’s Brooklyn, there’s Precycle and in Vancouver, British Columbia, there’s Nada, where customers can use their own containers or buy them. There’s also The Refill Shoppe in Ventura, Calif.; the Filling Station in New York; and Zero Market in Denver, which sells personal care and home products. Lyndsey Manderson, co-founder of Zero Market, is planning to open a second, larger location to sell food.

 The Supply Chain Situation 

The picture painted of plastic packaging is not a complimentary one, but plastic does have its place and is used for a reason. It helps preserve food and protect food during its journey to store shelves.

The supply chain is responsible for a lot of packaging, says Gundelach of Kantar. “The brands aren’t adding packaging just for fun, but more times than not the packaging is designed for the end shopper [and] how is that product making it through the supply chain.”

However, because of geography and distance, U.S. supply chains, especially for perishable products, can be more complex and demanding than those in Europe. “This pushes a lot of companies into using plastic to protect products,” says Saunders of Global Data.

“Plastic is also a relatively cheap and lightweight solution, which helps keep distribution costs down, something that’s vital in a low-margin sector where the consumer demands low prices and value for money,” he says. “In Europe, this remains an issue but the more compressed supply chain makes it easier for many operators to look to alternatives.”

Susan Selke, director and professor for the School of Packaging at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says there could be problems if packaging is reduced because it could lead to more product waste if the interior goods are damaged. “There are generally more environmental costs associated with that product waste than benefits associated with less packaging,” she says.

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