The packaging area is often seen as an area, where it is relatively easy to get started on changing to more sustainable solutions. But not all companies have departments that can provide support and expertise to the person who has been tasked with the assignment.

I would like to give a very hands-on guide to get started. There are no absolutes in the packaging area, as there are multiple factors that need to be taken into consideration, and these are different depending on product type.

My point of view is based on the experience I have with food packaging, which adds a whole new layer of considerations you must deal with.

Packaging is first and foremost meant to protect the primary product, and to provide information about the product to either the customer or the consumer. To make the packaging sustainable means that you must ensure that you only use the minimum amount of packaging needed, in a material that uses the least “footprint” as possible.

Once you have these essentials in place you can begin to look at the different types of materials and try to find out which one is the most “sustainable”.

The thing is that sustainable means something different to everyone:

  • Is it something that is already recycled?
  • Is it recyclable/reusable?
    • And if it is, can the specific combination (pack, film, label) that you intend to use be recycled/reused? Or is the combination of different material types prohibitive for this?
  • Is it made of something that is less harmful than what your competitors do?
  • Is it made of less material than the former version of your packaging?

…Or something completely different.

Getting started:

These are (some of) the questions you should ask yourself:

  1. INPUT – What are we producing? Are there any limitations to what materials we can use?
    a. Can we use recycled materials (some foods require virgin materials)? The draft Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (leaked October 2022) states that from 2030 plastic packaging must have 25% recycled material for contact sensitive plastic packaging, 50% for single use plastic beverage bottles, and 45% for other plastic packaging.
    b. Can we use less materials?
    c. Can we use different materials than we are used to?
  2. RANKING: How do we figure out which of these suitable materials we should choose:
    a. The materials should be mono-materials – ensuring that they can be recycled post-consumer
    b. If there are any national guidelines to which materials you should choose, please consider those – and again: What is good in Denmark is not necessarily good in Spain. Here is a link to some of the Danish guidelines:
    c. The EU Green Deal (Also called the Green Taxonomy) is a “dictionary-style” tool to provide clarity on what is an environmentally sustainable activity – and the purpose is to make it easier for investors to seek out environmentally sound investments. If your company is included in the taxonomy, your choices in materials will also be influenced by this.
    d. Are the right recyclability options available in the market you plan to sell your products in?
    e. Can you communicate the messages you want to give in a clear precise and simple way?
    i. Here again the PPWD (leaked) states that you must mark your packaging with the material composition in order to facilitate consumer sorting, as well as a QR code providing further information on the reusability.
  3. CHOOSING: Now you are supposed to have a bit of an overview (even though you might also be slightly confused at this point), and this is now the time to take other points into consideration
    a. Your brand management/marketing department will also have some ideas about how they want the packaging to be – some will be in line with your sustainability goals… some will not!
    b. The most sustainable option is not always the economical viable option. Can your product bear an on-cost? If not, what is the next best solution? If you are forced to do this, be sure to keep in touch with potential suppliers of the ideal solution – new materials tend to become cheaper within a relatively short time as demand rises, and their production can get economics of scale.
    c. Depending on the product your end consumer will have different attitudes towards the handling of packaging – be sure to know your end users: Will they actually rinse the container, split your packaging in 3 parts, sort them in 3 different bins etc.? If not the second-best solution might be the best after all.

From 1 st January 2025 the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) will come into effect, and this will mean further rules to be taken into consideration. As the details of the implementation are not yet finalized, I will only mention here that it is something that should be on your radar. Essentially the PPWD will move the financial burden of disposal of packaging from the end consumer to the producer of the packaging (Extended Producer Responsibility).

This list is not comprehensive – and it far from covers everything. Think of it as a starting point.

  • Make your own list
  • Talk to colleagues
  • Join forums where you can discuss with other interested parties
  • Share knowledge with others – and they will share with you

Lastly: Reach out to those you think can help – most people who know about sustainable packaging are
idealistic nerds who are happy that someone is interested in their little corner of the packaging universe.

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