What does ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Innovation’ mean in the packaging industry?

Root founder, Tracy Sutton

I was recently interviewed by Materials World, here you can read the first of two posts. Here I’ll explore how ‘sustainability’ is considered in the packaging industry.

What does ‘sustainability’ mean in the packaging industry?

You often hear people say that there is no such thing as a sustainable package –packaging is additional to the products we buy – it is often essential, but more often excessive. While consumers continue to demand limitless products 24/7 from around the globe, the industry will strive to prioritise and develop more environmentally sound solutions. Profit drives most businesses, meaning sustainable packaging must be something that will increase profit, sales or reputation. For me, sustainable design is smart, simple and slim. There is a tendency to over complicate things, but I think it’s always best to keep it simple. We should use less, and design packaging with a circular economy in mind.

Do you think there is enough innovation in the packaging industry?

The word ‘innovation’ can be used too much these days. Brands are under pressure to innovate, but often need support to make it happen. Innovation is not compostable packaging, a new shape of packaging or a light-weighted pack – these are all things that have been done before. Innovation is significantly more than this – these incremental steps are important achievements, but they don’t necessarily benefit the consumer. They don’t fill consumers with surprise. More needs to be done to help nudge people out of the comfort zone that exists around this apparent ‘innovation’. The industry is somewhat complacent, working within the systems and processes that exist, so we lack real game changing technological or creative innovations that really engage with consumers.

What steps would you like to see taken in the industry over the next few years?

I’d like to see if we could find a real alternative to plastic that uses renewable resources and composts in a home environment. The emergence of bio-based plastics such PET made from renewable resources are great, but they still leave us with lots of plastic to clean and move around the recycling system. Scientists, polymer manufacturers and packaging converters are currently undergoing a lot of work to trial new compostable materials, and I’m looking forward to seeing and reading the results of these tests. I’d also like to see regulation for those claiming their products are compostable and biodegradable within the industry. Brands are being sold items such as coffee cups and lids that only compost in an industrial composting facility. There is no real infrastructure to collect industrially compostable packaging – the packaging goes to landfill, while the buyers think that it dissolves in the garden at home.

As published in Materials World April edition.

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