Packaging: Wrapped in Recovery

A Look Back and a Glimpse Forward

Anne Johnson

Author: Anne Johnson,
VP Global Corporate Sustainability

Design and Development

One need look no further than the grocery store aisles to see one of the major trends in packaging –stand up pouches with all variety of closures and innovative forms. Tuna in pouches, rice in pouches, cleaning products in pouches, we see almost anything that can be wrapped and capped in pouches. However, bucking that trend, a recent study from PMMI shows that those of us that did not grow up with the fine motor skill to drink out of a flexible bag with a straw stuck into the side still prefer rigid containers for beverages. Providing consumer convenience and functional performance is seen in smart dosing caps, extended shelf life, and portion sizes designed to make life easier. It is a major focus of rigid or flexible packaging of all materials types. All of this focus on convenience, single serve, and away from home is leading to a lot of hard to recycle packaging – and it has not gone unnoticed.


In April of this year, Walmart convened an impressive showing of CEO’s who made a series of sustainability commitments. Significant among these commitments was that of Walmart, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Keurig-Green Mountain, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Goldman Sachs to advance the recycling of packaging by contributing to the Closed Loop Fund. On the same day, Walmart announced their corporate plastic packaging initiative focused on recyclability and recycled content. These announcements have reignited interest in the packaging supply about the use of recycled content and recyclability and cast a light on challenges within the recovery infrastructure for many materials. While not the first to do this, Walmart is the largest and latest example of companies recognizing the discontinuity between science-based approaches to packaging and reality of stakeholder materiality.

NGOs have also come together on the Make It Take It campaign to address the issues of unrecovered packaging and extended producer responsibility. They have made a point to target flexible packaging as well as specific brands. As You Sow has also been unveiling a series of shareholder resolutions and corporate campaigns targeted at consumer product goods companies on extended producer responsibility, packaging recyclability and recycled content.

While 2014 was largely a quiet year for extended producer responsibility legislation, California did pass the first state-wide ban of plastic bags indicating aquatic trash has hit the radar screen of regulators. Municipalities continue to drive their diversion programs and the sometimes conflicting patchwork of local programs grows. Social media has allowed consumers to become active participants in voicing their opinions about packaging. Recent studies indicate that consumers find recycling a positive action they can take with regard to the environment and more Americans than ever – especially younger ones – are recycling.

Recyclability has become a key characteristic of packaging. After almost a decade of working on sustainability and packaging, and receiving pressure from end users, regulators, and advocacy groups, it is pretty clear that full life cycle management of packaging is the expectation – especially from retailers and consumers. This is the reality whether the industry is regulated or not.

2015 Outlook

So what will 2015 bring? Probably much of the same. While there is a tremendous focus on both individual and collaborative efforts to recover packaging, the bread and butter for sustainable packaging will continue to look for ways to achieve individual business or brand value. This is achieved through innovating packaging design to save costs in materials, greening the supply chain, and increasing process efficiencies. The growth of plastics seems to have reached a point where its prevalence and low recovery rates must be addressed. The market pressure to act is certainly there. Initiatives like the Closed Loop Fund and Curbside Value Partnership’s Recycling Partnership stand out as hopeful resources that something can be done.

Where do you think 2015 will lead? Tell us in the comments section below.