Sustainability fuels future of packaging

Nov. 17, 2021
Consultant Todd Bukowski of PTIS says consumers are demanding greener solutions, and companies are responding with changes in design and materials that improve circularity.

By Bruce Geiselman 

Sustainability is driving the future of packaging.  

That’s according to Todd Bukowski, an industry consultant who said consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and packagers increasingly are embracing sustainability in response to consumer demands. 

“One of those big trends involves the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the brand owners and converters who have joined it,” Bukowski said. “They have a goal of getting all packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. That’s really driving an awful lot of what happens in packaging.” 

These companies also are establishing goals for putting post-consumer content into their packaging, he said. 

Bukowski is a principal with PTIS, a consulting company that helps companies identify trends and factors that may influence packaging over the next decade.  

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation promotes the circular economy and works with businesses, academics, policymakers and institutions across the globe. Major CPG companies, including Mars and Pepsi, have joined the foundation, and pledged to improve the sustainability of their packaging and to use more post-consumer content, he said. 

Other well-known businesses that have signed on to the foundation’s Global Commitment to building a circular economy for plastic are L’Oréal, Nestlé, Coca-Cola Co. and Unilever, as well as the world’s largest retailer — Walmart. Major packaging producers include Amcor and Berry Global. 

Another initiative that involves the foundation and various industry players is the HolyGrail 2.0 project, a collaborative effort to find ways to more efficiently recover recyclable materials from the waste stream. It uses digital watermarks to tag recyclable packaging to facilitate automated sorting.  

“I think sustainability is really bringing a lot of collaboration that we haven’t seen in the industry in the past,” Bukowski said. “There is recognition that if we want to hit some of these goals around sustainability and making all of our packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable, we have to be able to get it back. No one company — no one entity — can really drive that.” 

Companies are banding together to try to increase recovery and encourage a circular economy, he said. 

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws and policies also are driving efforts for recovering plastic packaging. EPR laws already are prevalent in Europe and parts of Canada, Bukowski said. This past summer, two states — Maine and Oregon — passed EPR laws that are expected to be phased in in coming years. EPR laws typically levy fees on manufacturers of products and packaging to finance recycling systems. 

In the meantime, groups like the Polypropylene Recycling Coalition, an initiative of the Recycling Partnership, are encouraging awareness and the creation of additional recycling programs.  

The Polypropylene Recycling Coalition is focused on increasing curbside recycling of PP, ensuring more recycling facilities can sort the material successfully and stimulating a robust end market for recycled PP in packaging, according to the organization’s website. 

“Their focus is on getting greater collection of polypropylene because polypropylene has a recycling recovery rate that’s extremely low,” Bukowski said. 

PP frequently is used in rigid packaging. PET and HDPE rigid packaging already is commonly recycled through residential curbside collection programs. 

The packaging industry, as it increases its use of post-consumer resin (PCR), will be challenged to meet its goals. 

“The challenge is that we have nowhere near the amount of capacity to collect and recycle PCR for what the demand is,” Bukowski said. “You need to have a lot more infrastructure so that we can collect and process and mechanically recycle the materials.” 

PCR will continue selling at a premium compared to virgin resin because of growing demand, but the higher prices may foster additional investment in recycling infrastructure, Bukowski said.  

Regarding flexible packaging, Bukowski has observed a movement toward mono-material pouches. Instead of combining incompatible plastics such as layers of PET and PE, packaging companies are moving toward all PE-based structures, which can be recycled. Some retail stores are beginning to collect the material. 

“You’re seeing a big push toward polyethylene mono-material pouches, and in some areas, you’re seeing paper being used as a substitute,” Bukowski said. 

Putting it on paper 

In several markets across Europe and in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, India and Taiwan, McDonald’s has introduced a paper-based cup for shakes, moving away from the traditional plastic cups. In Europe, McDonald’s is using wood-fiber cups for its sundaes.  

“Some large brand owners like Mars and Nestlé are converting some of their plastic candy bar wraps — confectionary wraps — over to paper-based structures,” Bukowski said. “It’s easier to recycle.”  

According to its website, Mars Wrigley Germany is offering a chocolate bar in a paper-based package for the first time together with its German retail partner EDEKA Minden-Hannover. Nestlé’s Smarties brand is now using recyclable paper packaging for its confectionery products worldwide. 

Making a case for refilling 

Meanwhile, some consumer brands are testing reusable packaging.  

“A lot of those packs are glass or aluminum or steel or maybe a very robust plastic, and those are meant to be reused,” Bukowski said.  

For example, Procter & Gamble in February announced that its Old Spice and Secret brands of antiperspirant were available in refillable cases made with nsingle-use plastic. Consumers indefinitely refill the containers with antiperspirant refills sold in 100 percent paperboard packaging. The paperboard tubes are fully recyclable, the company said. Consumers can crush the empty paperboard and drop it right into their recycling bin. 

Meanwhile, Unilever’s Dove brand recently announced it was introducing its first refillable deodorant. The deodorant comes in a stainless-steel case that’s designed to last a lifetime. The refill packaging is made from 98 percent recycled plastic. The refill packaging still requires some plastic to keep the deodorant fresh and hygienic, but Dove’s refills use 54 percent less plastic than its regular stick pack, the company said. 

“I think where you’re going to see a lot more of these refills out of the gate will probably be in personal care [products] like shampoos or soaps,” Bukowski said. “Method has been doing it for a number of years where you buy a pouch, and you refill your soap dispenser.” 

Breaking it apart 

Another trend is designing products for disassembly to encourage recycling. For example, Coveris, a European packaging company, in September announced the launch in Europe of what the company calls its “RecyclaPEel MAP sandwich skillet.” 

It’s a modified-atmosphere package (MAP) for sandwiches, made from fully recyclable carton board and PE liner components. The PE liner helps keep the sandwich fresh. The liner peelable, and consumers are asked to separate it from the paper packaging once they remove the sandwich. The liner and paper can then be recycled separately. 

Coca-Cola’s Sprite brand is transitioning from its iconic green PET bottles to clear bottles. The change is taking place in markets around the world and started a couple of years ago in Southeast Asia. The clear bottles now are starting to appear on shelves in the U.S., according to Fast Company, a monthly business magazine published. 

“It’s because the value of the PET, when it’s clear, is significantly more than if there’s a colored PET,” Bukowski said. “It’s an example of trying to get rid of one of those recycling disruptors and move onto a path that the package will have higher value and drive higher end-market use at the end of life.” 

Clear bottles for its Sprite brand aren’t the only environmental move Coke recently announced. In February, the company announced its various brands, including Coke, Sprite and Dasani, were rolling out bottles made from 100 percent recycled PET (rPET) in California, Florida, Texas and select states in the Northeast. 

Lightweighting with pouches 

Companies have long been lightweighting their packaging to save money, but it also reduces the amount of plastic used. That trend won’t go away, and a recent development in that area is the adoption of flexible pouches, Bukowski said.  

“There’s a transition to flexible pouches, where they can be used, because they’re often lighter than a rigid pack,” he said. “The other component that goes with that is sometimes a flexible pack may be able to handle the rigors of e-commerce better than a rigid pack. If something gets dropped, a rigid pack may crack or dent or break, where a flexible pouch may be able to handle those challenges a little bit better.” 

Drop-in bioplastics, like bio-PE and bio-PP, are garnering some interest because one of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s goals is to decouple plastics production from fossil fuel usage, Bukowski said. Drop-in bioplastics are chemically identical to their fossil-fuel-derived counterparts, but are made from renewable resources and can be processed on the same equipment.  

“These bio-based materials — bio-PE and bio-PP — probably will continue to grow in importance over time, but they’re still very niche at this point,” Bukowski said.  

However, they are more expensive than the traditional plastics they replace. 

Compostable packaging is another trend that is starting to surface but is not yet widespread. 

Pepsi’s Frito Lay division is coming out with an industrially compostable bag. The company’s Off The Eaten Path brand snacks in compostable bags are sold through Whole Foods Market and select retailers, the company said. 

Producing the materials used for these bags creates approximately 60 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions than traditional packaging, and the technology may be licensed to other companies at no cost to further its use, according to Frito Lay. The packaging is primarily made from non-food, plant-based sources.  

The bags cannot be composted at home, but customers may mail in the packaging using a provided prepaid shipping label or locate a local composting drop-off location via an online database. 

Packaging companies and consumer goods companies embracing sustainability face several challenges.  

“If you go to a mono-material polyethylene pouch, the shelf life may not be what it was,” Bukowski said. “Also, those pouches don’t tend to run as fast on equipment out of the gate. There definitely are some processing tweaks because you no longer have a PET layer on the outside that can take that heat. You have polyethylene throughout, so you really have to play with that.” 

The costs associated with using PCR are higher than using virgin resin, and there is not enough material to go around. In addition, PCR tends to be less consistent in quality. However, packaging companies can purchase equipment and software that will make the transition to more sustainable packaging easier, and those packaging companies are more closely aligning themselves with where brand owners are headed, Bukowski said. 


PTIS LLC, Ann Arbor, Mich., 269-806-4566,   

About the Author

Bruce Geiselman | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Bruce Geiselman covers extrusion, blow molding, additive manufacturing, automation and end markets including automotive and packaging. He also writes features, including In Other Words and Problem Solved, for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. He has extensive experience in daily and magazine journalism.