The Growing Importance of Sustainable Packaging
By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor
While shoppers typically want information about the food inside a package, they are increasing making purchase decisions based on the sustainability of the food package itself. Companies across the food industry have noticed the scrutiny now given to packages and have committed to advancing and improving materials and systems with a focus on packaging sustainability. With regulatory agencies also putting on the pressure, the industry has come together to create guidance on a range of packaging initiatives that can help companies advance their progress. The Sustainable Packaging Playbook 2021, recently released from FMI, was created to assist retailers and their suppliers in better understanding key approaches and considerations recommended to evolve toward efficient design, responsible sources, and circular systems for packaging. These concepts are described below:
- EFFICIENT DESIGN - How to deliver and protect products with the least amount of packaging material and with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Example improvements: reduce void space in packaging; reduce plastic overwraps.
- RESPONSIBLE SOURCES - Packaging comes from deforestation free supplies, recycled content, and the safest materials to protect human and environmental health. Example improvements: use certified virgin fiber and/or recycled fiber; ensure no per and polyfluorinated compounds (PFAS).
- CIRCULAR SYSTEMS - Ensure packaging supports the circular economy and does not end up as waste. Example improvements: design for recycling, remove polyvinyl chloride (PVC); use the How2Recycle label.
Retail dietitians can support this movement toward more environmentally friendly packaging in a number of ways. It’s first important to help shoppers appreciate the function of packaging to keep foods fresh, affordable and safe. And although consumers state that they are especially looking for recyclable packaging and recycled content, participation in recycling programs needs substantial improvement. Encouraging consumers to recycle is important. Learn more about reuse and/or recycling programs in your local communities and how you can partner to encourage greater participation. And when talking about the attributes of certain foods, like canned vegetables and beans, you can also talk about the fact that cans are 100% recyclable for life.
If your stores(s) are planning an Earth Day promotion in April, include discussions on sustainable packaging choices specifically highlighting any efforts underway to make your private brand packaging more environmentally friendly. Kroger, for example, has a target to have at least 10% post-consumer recycled content by 2030 and reported its status to be at 5% in 2020. Walmart surveys its private brand suppliers each year to support its plastic goals, asking for information on: Reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging; Recyclability of plastic packaging; Post-consumer recycled plastic; How2Recycle labeled products, and more. Walmart also reports its progress. In 2020, 55% of their private brand packaging was recyclable, reusable or industrial compostable.
As packaging advances, look for innovations that are in the works. Packaging will become more user friendly, easier to recycle and better for the environment. And as consumers seek out information on both personal and planet health, you’ll be prepared to discuss sustainable packaging developments.