The Untruths of Sustainable Packaging

An understanding of what we use and leave behind in the world — and how that affects our environment — has been building over many decades. But in more recent years, sustainable actions have been growing rapidly with consumers and businesses, as a result of governments, organizations and global initiatives like COP (Conference of the Parties) looking for people to make more of an impact.

From a consumer perspective, recycling product packaging has been one of the primary focuses for those keen to make a personal impact. But here consumers can only be led by business, and this is where packaging choice and labeling is so crucial.

As the desire and ability to recycle has increased, so too has the confusion around how sustainable, compostable and recyclable people’s packaging waste is. This reached something of a head in May 2023, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said too many misleading claims on packaging are resulting in widespread confusion. This means the famous “chasing arrows” symbol is under the spotlight, with the Biden administration now looking into its use.

There are several factors at play — from the multiple variations of the recycling symbol to the distinction between what can theoretically be recycled with what is commonly recycled. From a design and labeling perspective there needs to be more clarity so that people can better understand these symbols.


For instance, there are three widely used versions of the universal recycling symbol that mean very different types of recycling and recycled packaging content, despite the logo variation only involving changing white on black to black on white and whether it’s in a circle or not. And this is before we’ve got to the plastic options, which involve a number system added into the mix, where from a visual standpoint everything looks equal with no hierarchy, requiring investigation on what each number means. Because all plastic is not equal.

Presently, most brands use polyethylene terephthalate (#1 PET or PETE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (#2 LDPE), polypropylene (#5 PP) and polystyrene (#6 PS or Styrofoam). Each has different properties and different rates of recycling, but the most recycled is HDPE, used for milk cartons and detergent bottles among other things, with approximately 28% recycled. At the other end of the scale, PP is one of the most durable forms of plastic — its uses include straws, bottle caps and hot food containers, but only about 1% of PP is recycled.

It’s not surprising that the Consumer Brands Association found that 92% of Americans did not understand the plastic recycling system. Improvement is clearly required, although universal symbols are outside of brands’ jurisdiction and will require government and industry to align.

But some things are within brands’ control. How brands use language on packaging has the potential to inform and enlighten, or obfuscate and deceive. And what packaging materials a brand chooses sends out clear messages and cues about the corporate intent and the brand’s position on sustainability.

Approached in the right manner, there are huge opportunities for brands in both these aspects of how they present and store their products. Bygreen, the Australian brand that sells tableware and other items for food service, does a nice job of using their packaging to educate people on how to correctly recycle different types of materials.

So thinking beyond plastic, what about other materials?

Glass, which is widely used for bottles and jars, is one of the more common alternatives that has the benefit of being able to be recycled again and again without a loss in quality. Ideally, glass can be an excellent option for packaging. Yet in the U.S., only one-third of glass is recycled, compared to many European countries that recycle 90% of their glass due to some hurdles we need to get past. One is that glass is more expensive to transport; glass is 10X as heavy as plastic and, given that U.S. distances are much larger than in European countries, glass is a pricier option to transport for recycling.

Bioplastics have the look and feel of plastic, but their source material– such as corn starch or sugarcane rather than petroleum — is renewable. Exploring new materials is clearly a step in the right direction and we’re seeing more brands introduce or experiment with this packaging, such as LVMH, which has announced it is looking to introduce environmentally sustainable packaging across its perfume and cosmetics products under its Life 360 program and is using bioplastics as part of it. Bacardi will be replacing 80 million of its plastic bottles with its biodegradable bottle made from the natural oils of plant seeds such as palm, canola and soy. These are just two that are already implementing strategies in this area.

That said, the ‘bio’ prefix could be seen as confusing, as not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable — and those that are biodegradable often require quite specific conditions to break down. Additionally, some say bioplastics are even less sustainable due to the amount of fertilizer and pesticides used in their production. However, the opportunities for innovation are rife. Whether bottles made from recycled fishing nets or plantable packaging, ideas and experimentation are taking place, and brands can test different solutions.

And when we’re talking about sustainable packaging and business practices, some of the biggest impact can be achieved by taking a slightly different tack to this problem.

  • Reduction is often the obvious and an impactful first step. Whether it is removing unnecessary sleeves or layers or minimizing filler packing, this not only reduces waste but can also allow for more simplicity and clearer branding.
  • Thinking beyond the packaging material, which is just one piece when evaluating how sustainable a product is. Up to one-fifth of the biggest CPG companies are now shifting their focus from recycling to the carbon footprint of their packaging as a whole. To reduce the footprint, even your choice of printing method can have an impact. For example, did you know that flexo is a much more sustainable option than offset printing, as it allows for more use of sustainable inks and more recyclable material?
  • Reuse as opposed to recycle or compost has been increasing with consumers over the last several years. What started as consumers bringing their own bags to the grocery store (which was doubled down by brands like Walmart that no longer provide single-use bags at point of sale in many states) has grown to an increasing reuse approach by many. Brands like The Body Shop sell aluminum refillable bottles and have rolled out refilling stations at many stores around the world. Others like Face Gym have refillable pods for their skincare products, and even CPG is going in this direction with brands like Secret that sell paper packaged refills for their antiperspirant.

With the U.S.’s recycling system currently lagging our waste requirements, along with the confusion around the current system, it’s clear that better communication is needed across all parties. We need to better integrate sustainability and end-of-life management into our products and designs. It may require governments to overcome some of the worst of the labeling confusion, but this should not stop brands from being a bigger part of the solution — innovating and communicating with their customers — to keep the momentum required to help reduce waste for everyone.

Jenn Szekely is President – USA, Coley Porter Bell, leading the company’s North American business and select clients. She brings more than 20 years of B2C and B2B branding and marketing experience across a variety of industries — from retail to rockets. Szekely is passionate about the intersection of brand and business strategy and the power of brands to drive growth and employee engagement, as well as the role of brand architecture and brand governance.

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