Four packaging technologists and a sustainable world

Four packaging minds and Mansi Gupta grapple with sustainability. They agree that brands are doubling down on their sustainability commitments, but their implementation varies

25 May 2022 | By Mansi Gupta

Clockwise: Shreya Shetty, Vinay Thakur, Shreyasi Patel, Nikhitha Murdeshwar

Mansi Gupta (MG): What are top brands and emerging brands doing to make their packaging more sustainable? Are they doing enough?

Shreya Shetty (SS), assistant manager packaging, Nua: Asa Beauty, an emerging brand, has introduced the concept of refilling in the beauty industry. The case remains the same, you just need to refill the products. This reduces the manufacturing of packaging and returning the packaging material to the company ensures minimising the waste. I find this as one of the best brands vis-a-vis clean packaging concepts.  

Vinay Thakur (VT), packaging development officer, Kolher: Green materials are directly linked to sustainability. While it may appear so, package sustainability is just material consumption, rather than it being categorised as green. The primary goal is to reduce the amount of material consumption. Now, established packaging companies are seeking to save money by reducing the amount of material they use. This results in less material and space while travelling through the supply chain. This is a key factor in sustainability.
While established firms discover methods to operate within an existing system, emerging firms are experimenting with novel tactics such as employing biodegradable materials and demonstrating new ways to reuse packaging.

Shreyasi Patel (SP), printing and packaging engineer: Packaging needs to be appealing and sustainable. Material consumption is the first step in establishing sustainability. Keeping this in mind, the primary focus among top brands is the reduction of material for their packaging. Research for biodegradable alternatives is an ongoing part of the R&D process. Ikea is testing packages made from mushrooms and replacing styrofoam packaging with my composite agriculture waste and mushroom root. Emerging brands are trying to expand the concept of reusing a package. The external packages used for delivery purposes can be sent back to the company where it is checked and reused. 

Nikhitha Murdeshwar (NM), student, University of Texas: With the growth in the packaging industry, the need for sustainability in the products, processes and packaging has become very important. Many brands are working to make their packaging sustainable. They are looking for ways to make their packaging eco-friendly and introduce plant-based components into their packaging. Making the packaging recyclable and reusable has been one of the initiatives. FMCG companies, such as Bisleri, are spreading awareness by offering incentives to the consumers who bring back the used bottles so that they can be recycled. eCommerce platforms, such as Amazon, are reducing the overall use of tertiary and secondary packaging to minimise packaging waste and prevent over-packaging of the product. Industries are keeping their carbon footprints in check. With so much to do, sustainability will require continuous improvement. The road is long, but with trial and error, companies are trying their best to give back to the environment. 

MG: How are established CPGs reducing materials and turning to post-consumer recycled plastics?

SP: CPGs are turning to recycled materials, which do not alter or interfere with the product. The use of post-consumer recycled plastics can reduce the manufacturing of virgin plastic. As part of the Sustainability Action Plan, Coca-Cola, Western Europe has pledged that by 2025, it will collect post-consumer waste and ensure that all its packaging is 100% recyclable. By 2023, it will ensure that at least 50% of the content of its PET bottles will come from recycled content, accelerating its ambition to use zero virgins, oil-based PET.  

SS: Single-layer and single-origin plastic laminates with coating would effectively take over today’s multilayer laminate structure. Many companies are in the trial stage to check structures and whether they retain good shelf life or not. Reusing recycled rigid plastic granules also reduces the production of the new granules in the market. By 2025, we will see the important CPG moving into these areas of plastic manufacturing.

VT: Since it is nearly impossible to eliminate plastic from packaging, the best option is post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastics. Tetra Pak has set a goal of adopting 10% PCR in primary packaging by 2025 and 50% PCR in secondary packaging. Unilever has devised three mantras to address the problem. These are less plastic (reducing the use of plastic in the first place); better plastic (using PCR-based materials and ensuring that goods are recyclable); and no plastic (using refill alternatives to eliminate the need for fresh plastic and replacing it with alternative materials). The point is, by 2025, Unilever wants to have a 25% PCR content. 

NM: Many CPG companies have set targets and goals for the future to reduce the use of packaging materials that are harmful to the environment. Nestle is committed to making its packaging 100% recyclable, and reusable and reducing the use of virgin plastic by one third, by 2050. Companies have started mixing plant-based polymers in their packaging materials to make them more sustainable. Now, industries are using PCR plastic and converting it to granules. This is mixed with other components that can be reused to make the packaging of a product.

MG: Where do bamboo and other bioplastics perform best in sustainable packaging efforts?

SP: Bamboo is being used to make straws, which is a better alternative to plastic straws, unlike plastic, which ends up in landfills or oceans, and paper, which gets soggy and often changes the taste of the product. Another example is pressed hay used for egg cartons in Poland.

SS: Bamboo can be an easy replacement for toothbrushes, razor handles, cleaning accessories such as toilet brushes, broom handles, kitchen cutlery, furniture, and more. Bioplastic is still in the growth stage. Many companies have to check the product packaging compatibility and shelf life of the same.

VT: Since bamboo is a fast-growing plant with strong fibres that is easy to cultivate and harvest, it is a better alternative. Bamboo is used by several businesses to make small bottles, lids, and take-out food containers, among other things. Bamboo may also be used to make pulp trays, which is one of the best uses for the material. New start-ups have a significant impact on the R&D for bamboo. Even well-established companies such as Dell have introduced bamboo pulp trays. 

NM: Bamboo and other bioplastics perform best in the cosmetic industry. They make the package look authentic and classy, which appeals to the customers. They serve their function well and are also biodegradable and environmentally friendly, which makes them one of the best choices for such packaging.

MG: Is EPR crucial or is it just a cosmetic change?

SP: EPR is important and crucial in today’s world. In India, the reduction of waste and its reuse is a helpful initiative taken by producers.

SS: EPR is very crucial and drives the company to think about the development cycle till it reaches the end-user. Right now, EPR awareness is meagre. We need to create awareness among the consumers on how to segregate waste and provide it to authorities concerned so that it can reach the recyclers.

NM: I believe that EPR is crucial, and if executed efficiently, it can bring about a positive change in the industry. Making the producers responsible for the post-consumer packaging and spreading this awareness in the packaging industry will bring us a step closer to sustainability. 

VT: Sweden was the first to introduce this concept in 1990. Ideally, the product should be disposed of in the proper supply chain after it has served its purpose. But we are still in the dry waste and wet waste segregation phase. In Sweden, society segregates trash into six separate types. As a result, it will be easier to dispose of waste and recycle them.

MG: How does one communicate sustainable efforts in packaging to young millennials?

VT: Millennials are aware of new trends and developments. We keep a close eye on everything that happens around us. We only need a little understanding to recognise efforts made to make something sustainable. Many of us refuse plastic cutlery on food delivery platforms when it is not required. All that is required is for someone to come up with a concept and convey it effectively. Companies should use social media to effectively convey their efforts.

SS: Millennials are aware of the concept of sustainability. Going forward, I think they will drive the sustainability efforts. The concept of recycling and upcycling is something that younger generations are very keen to learn. Social media platforms help in engaging and educating the younger generation on sustainability efforts.

NM: Social media has a strong grasp on the millennials in today’s world and I believe that is the best way to communicate sustainability efforts to them. Using social media platforms can help reach out to people who are not aware of this.

SP: Millennials are aware of the need for sustainability. Using social media is the right approach to inform them about new policies, laws and measures required.n