The future of sustainable packaging, like the future of anything else, is difficult to predict. There will be changes in public demand, government incentives and new technologies. We do know that sustainable packaging will be part of our future and that companies that figure it out sooner rather than later will have a competitive advantage in the market.

The current consumer habits and practices of product manufacturers, in general, are unsustainable with regard to pollution, destruction of eco-systems and climate change. We also know that current sustainable packaging practices are not working to the degree that they need to work. According to the EPA, only one half of many packaging materials are recycled. Furthermore, for most types of materials, the total amount of packaging used has increased such that the absolute total amount of non-recycled packaging has increased since 1960 [1].

Therefore, if we accept that sustainable packaging is essential for a successful strategy in addressing climate and environmental challenges and that there will be consumer demand to move in this direction, we can then look at what is needed to successfully implement sustainable packaging, and the steps needed to get to that point, to obtain a reasonable picture of what the future of sustainable packaging should look like.

So, we look first at the necessary steps to implement sustainable packaging. The cycle for sustainable packaging consists of five steps: an ability for consumers to collect recyclables, local collection of recyclables from consumers, material recovery facilities to receive the collected recyclables, manufacturers who can reprocess the recyclables into new packaging and finally, product manufacturers who use reprocessed material in a sustainable way [2].

For consumers to be able to collect recyclables there needs to be consumer awareness and motivation. Consumers need to be motivated to identify, clean and sort recyclable material. Product manufacturers will need to package products in a way that facilitates the consumer in identifying, separating and cleaning recyclables. So, the first thing we can identify for the future is packaging that has easily identifiable components that are easily separated, and made of material that is easy and convenient to clean. We might also envision some form of tax or deposit to provide further motivation, either on the manufacturer, the consumer or both.

An alternative to having the consumer separate one recycable type from another would be to have the process of separation done at the material recovery facility. This would make the logistics of collecting the recyclables from the consumer easier.

The reprocessing of recyclables into new packaging has to make sense economically. There are many communities that send recyclables (glass) to land refills because it is cheaper. The future of sustainable packaging needs to provide an efficient way to move recyclables between material recovery facilities and reprocessing. In addition to the logistics issue, there needs to be an efficient market for the sellers of recovered material and the buyers so that a recovery facility in one city with a ton of green glass can easily find a buyer for that glass. In the future it has to be more profitable to sell the glass than to put the glass in a landfill.

To summarize, we have identified the steps in the cycle of sustainable packaging. By looking at the issues posed at each step and evaluating what needs to be done to address some of these issues we have some picture as to what the future of sustainable packaging might look like.

Works Cited:

Containers and Packaging: Product-Specific Data

Essay by: Erich Lauer
Arizona State University

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