What is ‘Sustainable Packaging’? You Might be Surprised by What Qualifies.

John Egan - The Upside Blog

by | Read time: 4 minutes

If you’re a fan of sustainable packaging, you’re in good company.

In a 2023 survey by consulting giant McKinsey & Co., roughly two-thirds of U.S. consumers said sustainable packaging was at least somewhat important when making a purchase. Furthermore, about half of consumers indicated they were willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, although most committed to paying only a small premium.

But what exactly is sustainable packaging, why is it important and how can you embrace it?

Back View of Woman Shopping for Products with Sustainable Packaging in Zero-Waste Store

What is sustainable packaging?

Compostable packaging company Tipa defines sustainable packaging as any kind of environmentally friendly material used to wrap, store, ship or shelve products. This includes aluminum soup cans, plastic beverage bottles and cardboard shipping boxes.

Sustainable packaging includes recyclable materials, such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) or HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastic, as well as cardboard and paper wrappings, according to Tipa. These materials, if correctly sorted for recycling, can be shredded, pulped or melted down and remolded as raw material for new packaging or other purposes.

Although Tipa’s explanation is pretty clear, there’s some confusion among U.S. consumers about what constitutes sustainable packaging, the McKinsey survey shows.

At least 70% of consumers questioned by McKinsey correctly cited two types of packaging as being extremely or very sustainable: compostable packaging and package-based packaging.

However, fewer than 30% of consumers mentioned two varieties of packaging — a hybrid of plastic, paper and aluminum foil, along with aluminum foil wraps — as being extremely or very sustainable. Yet all of those materials can be sustainable, particularly aluminum foil.

Why is sustainable packaging important?

Simply put, sustainable packaging benefits the environment.

ADEC ESG Solutions, a company that helps businesses achieve sustainability goals, explains that conventional packaging depletes natural resources. Meanwhile, sustainable package demands fewer natural resources.

“It’s no secret that our environment is under immense pressure due to the side effects of human activity,” says Southwest Journal, a Minnesota-based online magazine. “From global warming to plastic pollution, there are many problems that need to be addressed, and sustainable packaging has become a hot topic in the fight against environmental degradation.”

Among other benefits, sustainable packaging can curb the amount of waste dumped in landfills, reduce carbon emissions, cut down on air pollution and decrease water pollution.

What are companies doing to promote sustainable packaging?

Companies large and small are leading efforts to promote sustainable packaging. Examples include:

  • E-commerce behemoth Amazon says it replaced nearly 70% of its mixed-material bubble mailers with recyclable paper-padded mailers in 2021. “Amazon customers want right-sized, recyclable packaging that minimizes waste and ensures damage-free delivery,” the company says.
  • Coca-Cola says that in 2022, an equivalent of 61% of bottles and cans it produced were collected and refilled or collected for recycling. The beverage company aims to collect and recycle one bottle or can for each one it sells by 2030.
  • Food and beverage company Nestlé says that in 2022, nearly 86% of its packaging was recyclable or reusable, and 36% of its packaging was made from recycled or renewable materials.

What can you do to promote sustainable packaging?

The McKinsey survey shows 43 percent of U.S. consumers consider environmental impact an extremely or very important characteristic of packaging when they make purchases. Are you among them? Whether you are or not, here are 10 steps you can take to support sustainable packaging:

  1. Bump up your commitment to recycling. According to data provider Statista, the U.S. recycled 68% of paper but only 5% to 6% of plastic in 2021.
  2. Shop for grocery items sold in containers made of sustainable materials.
  3. Seek out restaurants that use sustainable containers for to-go orders.
  4. Try to combine several items into a single online order to lessen the reliance on packaging.
  5. Purchase items in bulk and in refillable containers.
  6. Drink tap water instead of single-use bottled water.
  7. Consider containers made of plastic or aluminum rather than glass. A surprising study released in 2020 found that glass actually harms the environment more than plastic. How is that so? Because glass is mined from rare materials, according to the EcoWatch website, and requires morefossil fuels to produce and ship.
  8. Limit your use of plastic. Plastic makes up 80% of ocean debris, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
  9. Exchange aluminum, plastic bags or plastic wrap for reusable containers when you’re storing leftover food.
  10. Drink coffee or tea in washable mugs rather than paper-based beverage cups.

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