From the consumer’s point of view, “sustainable packaging” is packaging that positively impacts the environment. Sustainable packaging, according to a recent report in Sustainability, is important to consumers who dislike waste created by packaging-related issues, visible pollution on land and water caused by plastics, negative changes in the climate and air quality, and the conditions of water and soil where many of the used packaging are found. To address this consumer value, several companies, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, McDonald’s, Nestle, and Kraft-Heinz, announced their plans for improved packaging sustainability by at least 2025. Their action plans address the consumer understanding of sustainable food packaging and include enhancing their use of recycled materials while increasing their own recycling programs, choosing sustainable sources, reducing packaging weight, and improving package design to improve materials recovery. Since most of these plans involve capital costs, lengthy delivery times to the consumer, and technical gaps, manufacturers will likely encounter serious implementation problems.
Sustainable Packaging Coalition Definition of Sustainable Packaging
The term “sustainability” emerged in the 1987 Brundtland United Nations report. At that time, sustainability was defined as “the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Its definition has since evolved in the packaging industry. According to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in 2011, sustainable packaging is a product that:
- Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle;
- Meets market criteria for performance and cost;
- Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy;
- Optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials;
- Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices;
- Is made from materials healthy throughout the life cycle;
- Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy; and
- Is effectively recovered and used in biological and/or industrial closed loop cycles.
The life cycle assessment (LCA) tools used by the packaging industry consider sustainable food packaging as primarily protecting the food. Other functions that the consumer wants are addressed only after the protection of food has been defined. Otherwise, food stops being a food and cannot or should not be eaten. The LCA tools additionally expect sustainable packaging to enhance food quality and shelf life, consequently mitigating food loss and waste and leading to a more sustainable food supply. Research published in the Annual Review of Resource Economics in 2020 also contends that sustainability-related food labels promote a more sustainable world.
Sustainable Packaging Terms for the Consumer
As previously stated, consumers view sustainable packaging as packaging that has a positive impact on the environment. One term that consumers use is “eco-friendly,” which refers mainly to the environmental impact of the packaging. The social and economic aspects of food packaging are not part of this term. The consumer also usually believes that recycling results in sustainable packaging. As with the term “eco-friendly,” there is no consideration of its cost, convenience, or reliability as a package. The term “bio-packaging” has also been used. To the consumer, bio-packaging is a product that readily biodegrades in the environment. This is not a true assumption, because there are bio-based plastics that are not biodegradable.
“Greenwashing” is another term that is similar to “eco-friendly”; it attempts to project the idea of a more environmentally sustainable packaging than other packaging alternatives. Sometimes a symbol, such as a green leaf or the color green, is used to enhance this perception. Because the symbol is simple and goes well with consumer perception of sustainable packaging, greenwashing has been incorporated rapidly into sustainability marketing efforts. But, when consumers observed that even greenwashed packages littered the environment, they became distrustful of these companies due to a perceived lack of corporate commitment to sustainability through their brands and marketing.