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Sustainability and Inflation: How Packaging Companies are Finding the Sweet Spot

Photo courtesy fascinador, Adobe

According to a recent study, price, quality and convenience are still consumers’ top buying criteria for products.

This comes despite earlier research finding a shift in consumer attitudes was the driving force behind the push for sustainable packaging in 2020. However, with high inflation costs continuing to be felt across the U.S., the reality of a high price tag for eco-friendly packaging may be in conflict with sustainability preferences.

I explore the challenges the packaging industry faces when creating sustainable products and how companies can meet environmental pledges without passing on the cost to the consumer.

The Rise of Circular Packaging

Circular packaging refers to a design and management approach that creates a closed-loop system for packaging materials, minimizing waste and maximizing resource efficiency. It’s an integral part of the circular economy concept, which seeks to move away from the traditional linear “take-make-dispose” model toward a more sustainable approach. Some options to support this concept include durable packaging, recycling initiatives and biodegradable packaging.

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Durable packaging is designed to withstand various environmental conditions and physical stresses, providing protection to the contents within. It’s designed to be long-lasting and resistant to wear and tear. Durable packaging can withstand multiple uses and provide extended shelf-life, reducing the need for frequent replacement packaging.

These materials may require a higher upfront investment compared to disposable alternatives. This initial expense can be a barrier for businesses, especially for small-scale operations or those with limited budgets. However, the higher starting costs can result in longer-term savings further down the line as less replacement packaging is needed.

Biodegradable packaging offers a promising solution to reduce the amount of waste generated by traditional packaging materials, but there are issues that need to be addressed.

In the U.S., there is no federal legislation on biodegradable claims. The FTC offers guidelines, but no laws and only a few U.S. states legislate the term. However, the silver lining is that legislative progress is happening, especially on recyclability terms.

For example, in 2021 California passed a new bill, AB 1201, creating a requirement that compostable products must be certified by third-party organizations like BPI.

Some biodegradable materials may not be as durable as traditional plastics, which can lead to issues with product quality and safety. Businesses should continuously test and evaluate the effectiveness of their biodegradable packaging, which will help to identify any potential issues or challenges that need to be addressed to improve the packaging’s long-term performance and sustainability.

For example, an option for businesses is to move away from conventional polymers entirely and into alternative, recyclable materials. Paper is one option and has the advantage of being inexpensive and easily recognized by consumers as a sustainable material.

Going Lighter

To reduce shipping costs and minimize the overall packaging footprint, companies can consider using lighter materials that are still sturdy enough to protect products. Corrugated cardboard is lightweight, cost-effective and widely used for packaging. It provides good protection while being relatively light compared to other materials.

Molded pulp is another option made from recycled paper or agricultural fibers and is lightweight, biodegradable and recyclable. It offers excellent cushioning and protection for delicate items and can be molded into various shapes to fit the product’s contours.

Flexible packaging, like pouches and lightweight films, can be an efficient alternative to rigid packaging as it requires fewer materials and can be customized to fit the product’s shape. Traditional foam materials like expanded polystyrene (EPS) can be replaced with lightweight alternatives like biodegradable foams, starch-based foams or foams made from recycled materials. These alternatives offer similar protective properties while being more environmentally friendly.

Businesses are also exploring the rise of lighter, refillable packaging initiatives like Cif’s concentrated eco refills under the Unilever brand. A recent report found 74% of Americans are now interested in buying products in refillable packaging.

There, are, of course, plenty of opportunities for businesses that embrace reusable packaging. However, there are still challenges associated with the switch to more sustainable solutions that have yet to be fully resolved.

For example, it’s uncertain how many times a product must be refilled to result in substantially less long-term waste. And while refills do offer longer-term savings, some consumers may not want to repeatedly buy from the same brand.

Packaging companies can support this movement by working in tandem with businesses to create ‘universal’ refillable packaging. There are industry concerns with certain product groups where it’s thought differentiation is essential. However, a standardized approach to packaging design would be more efficient and enhance ease of use, from the consumers’ interaction with the service all the way through to the supply chain.

Simplified Packaging Design

When packaging materials are mixed, the recycling sorting process becomes more complex, requiring additional time, labor, and resources. This can lead to a higher likelihood of misclassification and contamination, reducing the overall recycling efficiency.

Mixing packaging materials can also result in downcycling rather than true recycling. Downcycling refers to the process where materials are converted into lower-value or lower-quality products. This occurs when mixed materials are processed together, leading to a loss in material properties and quality.

Downcycling reduces the potential for creating high-quality recycled materials and perpetuates the demand for virgin resources, therefore increasing additional potential costs.

To help mitigate these issues it’s important to promote source separation of different packaging materials, and one way to do this is through making smarter packaging design choices.

Businesses should consider designing packaging systems that accommodate multiple products or different product configurations. Modular packaging allows for flexibility and adaptability, enabling the use of a single packaging design for various product sizes or combinations. This approach reduces the need for separate packaging designs and simplifies inventory management.

Evaluate designs to identify opportunities for material reduction and see if it is possible to eliminate unnecessary components or excess layers while maintaining adequate protection. For example, using thinner but sturdy materials can reduce the overall weight and material usage without compromising functionality.

Improving Supply Chains

Automated systems can provide real-time visibility and help businesses to track inventory accurately, forecast demand and automate replenishment processes. Optimizing inventory management can also reduce business’ production costs over time if more focus is given to efficient packaging design.

For example, it can help businesses to better forecast their packaging needs and avoid over-ordering or under-ordering packaging materials. This lowers the amount of packaging material used in production, which can result in significant cost savings over time.

Better-managed inventory levels reduce the amount of space required for storing packaging materials, freeing up valuable warehouse room and storage budgets.

Companies can also better manage their transportation needs by consolidating orders, using more efficient transportation methods and avoiding last-minute rush orders, which are more expensive.


Charles Haverfield is the CEO of U.S. Packaging & Wrapping, a full-service, customer-driven packaging supply company dedicated to providing superior products and services at an affordable price. Its staff takes pride in the ability to inform customers about various packaging options. Headquartered in Central Arkansas with shipping warehouses on the east and west coast, U.S. Packaging & Wrapping strives for fast and affordable shipping.

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