By Kevin M. Lee, Speaker, Published Author, Director of Solutions Engineering, SafetyChain Software

There is ample evidence that the pandemic greatly affected the way consumers shop and how they think and feel about multiple aspects of their food, including the packaging.

Before 2020, consumers indicated a growing awareness of sustainability and recyclability in packaging but ranked it far behind issues such as cost and quality in terms of importance. However, under a looming public health threat, many consumers began to focus more on both personal and environmental health.

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Several months into 2022, it’s clear that attitudes have shifted further, and more consumers are intentionally seeking out packaging that appears sustainable or recyclable. In a highly competitive market, packaging manufacturers will need to consider the impact of these consumer changes on their organizations.

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Is sustainability in food packaging the future?

While 54% of consumers think about sustainable packaging while shopping, considerable confusion remains about what sustainable and recyclable mean. The number of consumers who ranked sustainable packaging as of little to no importance has decreased.

While awareness of sustainable packaging increased among all age groups, younger consumers lead the way both in awareness and ranking it as an important factor to consider when purchasing products. And across all age groups, nine out of ten people believe strongly that school-aged children should learn how to recycle responsibly. As Gen Z and Millennial shoppers become a more significant portion of the consumer population, their preference for eco-friendly and sustainable choices across multiple industries is increasingly affecting packaging from creation to end of life, and will only increase in the future.

A growing awareness of a package’s final destination

Misconceptions about what kinds of packaging are recyclable and how much packaging is making it to recycling facilities abound. 70% of all consumers say they think about sustainable packaging when making purchases, but most do not realize how little packaging actually gets recycled.

According to Trivium Packaging’s Buying Green Report, the majority of metal packaging does get recycled. But contrary to popular belief, most plastic and paper packaging is not or cannot be easily recycled or composted. Less than two in five people are confident in their ability to recycle effectively at home. Many municipalities lack the facilities or means to adequately capture and recycle a large bulk of plastic packaging, and consumers are beginning to understand and demand more accountability. 

California determined that more than 85% of single-use plastic food containers end up in a landfill each year. In response to this, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 343, limiting the ability of packaging manufacturers to advertise packaging as recyclable if there are no existing collection programs for that type of packaging. California also passed Assembly Bill 793 in 2021, requiring a minimum recycled content for glass and plastic beverage containers.

Several states have followed suit and passed similar measures, including Oregon, Washington, and New Jersey. New Jersey’s State Bill 2515 includes several packaging types, not just beverage containers.

The cost of recyclable and sustainable packaging

While 83% of younger consumers say they would be willing to pay more for sustainable packaging, many consumers have recently returned to more cost-conscious habits as inflation drives prices higher. While inflation may cause a segment of the population to shift away from more expensive sustainable packaging, some states are looking at a new way to pay for sustainability.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) has been a major factor in food packaging production in Europe and is now beginning to take hold in the United States. Consumers’ and investors’ perceptions of responsibility regarding sustainability and recycling are shifting. In fact, consumers have been bearing the costs of recycling—or the lack thereof—for years.

Still, many states and municipalities are moving that cost and responsibility to the creators of that packaging. In July of 2021, Maine became the first state, quickly followed by Oregon, to pass a law that requires the manufacturers to pay for the cost of recycling their packaging in the form of a fee. As more states adopt and enforce laws aligning with EPR, consumers will see greater transparency in the recycling stream, but not all states are focusing on food packaging sustainability.

Traceability for sustainability

As anxiety about the environment, waste streams, and the climate rises among consumers, many companies have proactively sought to show their sustainability, changing labels and packaging to reflect consumers’ concerns. However, a significant and growing portion of the population is becoming wary of greenwashing—making a product or packaging seem more sustainable than it really is. Young people are at the forefront of the pushback against greenwashing.

As the FDA implements food traceability requirements under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), companies and consumers may gain greater visibility into the true sustainability of food products.

Traceability of ingredients and food products ultimately affects consumer perceptions around food packaging because most ingredients and products are shipped at least once and require packaging to maintain food safety and integrity. However, developing sustainable packaging that can withstand great distances or multiple stops between the product origin and destination can cost significantly more than conventional packaging. Sustainable packaging may not stand up to quality control regulations or are not as extensively tested as less sustainable packaging. And while consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainability, only 20% of consumers are willing to pay over 10% more.

Clean label concerns

In addition to a growing awareness surrounding food packaging, consumers are also increasingly concerned about the sustainability of the food ingredients inside the packaging. Movements like the Clean Label Project aim to aid consumers in identifying foods that are safe and free from potentially hazardous materials like heavy metals and pesticides.

However, clean labels are standards-based and not legally required. Food manufacturers are nevertheless adding them based on consumer perceptions of what is safe or unsafe. Some researchers are concerned that applying clean labels may drive consumer fears and chemophobia rather than helping to create transparency.

Packaging trends beyond 2022

More companies are responding to consumer demands for sustainable and recyclable packaging. Some states are beginning to support these trends by shifting from emphasizing personal responsibility for recycling to holding manufacturers at least partially responsible for the associated costs. As younger consumers gain a more significant share of the buying power, they are actively choosing products and packaging they perceive as more sustainable options. 

As the food supply continues to expand in complexity, traceability concerns are prompting companies to develop packaging that can withstand extensive handling and shipping but still be recycled, reused, or composted at the end of its journey. Consumers are shifting from viewing sustainable packaging as a specialty and are increasingly expecting it as the norm, and this will soon need to be the expectation of successful packaging manufacturers. Sustainability trends continue to gain popularity among all consumers and are likely to continue to grow.

Kevin has 25 plus years of manufacturing, distribution, and supply chain experiences. Kevin has worked in the Quality Risk and Compliance arenas to meet FDA regulations. Kevin specializes in manufacturing & supplier quality management and is seasoned in ERP-Plant Management integrations with ERP and WMS implementations for 10+ years.