Zero waste vs. convenience: can packaging do it all?

From food service to pharma, companies in every industry have to adapt to changing consumer packaging preferences – or face the consequences. With increasing environmental concerns, brand owners today are challenged not only to adapt quickly, but to reconcile two seemingly conflicting consumer demands: greater convenience and zero waste.

Is waste the cost of convenience?

For decades, brand owners and retailers have met consumer demand for more convenient packaging with a wider range of package sizes and design innovations, giving consumers the ability to choose packaging that best fits their lifestyle. Not surprisingly, smaller package sizes and greater design variety has resulted in more packaging.

Photo Courtesy: Cleanwateraction.org

Unfortunately, that additional packaging is nearly always disposable. The busier we get, the more we rely on disposable packaging to simplify our lives, and the impact has been huge. Globally, the disposable items market for foodservice alone is more than $11 billion. 

Not only has the demand for greater convenience led to more, smaller, disposable consumer packaging, it’s also increased our use of disposable transport packaging. As our dependence on e-commerce grows, so, too does our consumption of the cardboard boxes used to ship products to our homes. Smithers Pira estimates that e-commerce consumes $20 billion of corrugated packaging materials globally, growing nearly 15 percent a year.

Consumers are pressuring brands to reduce packaging waste

Driven by concerns for our overflowing landfills and oceans, consumers are waking up to the harsh reality of a disposable packaging culture and demanding change. As heavy users of consumer packaging, the food and beverage industries take a lot of the heat. Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute noted a “growing concern about single-use items” in a recent Baking Business article. That concern is already having an impact: 23% of consumers say they’ve stopped buying a food or beverage due to concerns about the environmental impact of its packaging, according to Accenture Chemicals’ 2019 Global Consumer Sustainability Survey.

As highly-visible users of transport packaging, e-commerce companies are also feeling the pressure. Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging initiative, which looks to reduce the size and number of boxes it uses in shipments, is driven in part by environment concerns, particularly among Millennials. Other reasons include reducing shipping costs and the “general nuisance” of cardboard overflowing in garages, according to a statement made to Bloomberg.

Reconciling convenience and zero waste with reusable packaging

Demand for more convenient packaging and delivery systems shows no signs of slowing, nor does consumer pressure for companies to create zero waste packaging. Brand owners are finding the solution, for both consumer and transport packaging, in reusable systems.

Loop durable packaging on porch
Photo Courtesy: Loop

Companies like Loop, Limeloop, and Returnity all offer reusable e-commerce packaging systems for brands as varied as ThreadUp and Haagen Dazs. Similar to reusable transport packaging systems such as bins, crates, and pallets, these systems deliver goods in durable, reusable packaging through existing distribution channels. More durable packaging means reduced product damage and returns due to packaging failures, a huge cost to brand owners and a major inconvenience to their customers.

But are consumers really willing to change from a disposable to a reusable mindset when it comes to packaging? According to Nielsen research, the answer is “yes”: nearly three-quarters of consumers say they would “definitely” or “probably” change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. Ms. Dyer of the Foodservice Packaging Institute agrees, “Given the concerns about single-use, expect to see growing interest in reusable packaging in 2019,” she said.

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