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Improved automation is a major driver behind several of the biggest trends that will impact packaging sustainability in 2024.
As 2025 sustainability target deadlines loom, retailers including Amazon are
trying to make good on their promises. The e-commerce giant announced in
that its European facilities just ended use of single-use plastics in
packaging. In the US, it’s working on the shift away from plastic — opening
its first fulfillment
free of plastic packaging in Euclid, Ohio, in October. With changes like this,
2024 could see the greatest shift in
since the introduction of plastic.
One thing helping businesses make the switch is improved
showing that sustainability and automation are the two greatest instigators of
this shift and are often intertwined. You’ll see how often they overlap as we
explore the biggest packaging trends of 2024 that are impacting sustainability.
Leon Nicholas, VP of Retail
Insights and Solutions at WestRock,
identified these trends through the team’s work with major brands.
With improved decisioning and AI capabilities in digital, it’s predicted that
any repetitive task that doesn’t require much analysis will eventually be done
by robots, drones or automated machinery. This means tasks such as stacking
packages on shelves, picking and packing items for pickup or delivery, unloading
trucks and storing inventory, etc.
“Most packaging today was designed to be viewed on a store shelf; a drone or a
robot would have a hard time picking up a bag of salad or a big bag of dog
food,” Nicholas said. “The packaging has to be redesigned in order for us to
make full use of automation.”
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When those redesigns are done, you can be sure the new packaging will be more
sustainable as retailers are already pushing brands for that. And it becomes
easier for them to make their packaging more sustainable with less need for
For robots and drones to know which packages to pick off shelves, those packages
will need RFID or smart tags — another feature many retailers have already
Besides using smart-tag technology for inventory and product selection, it can
also enable automation to help us better reuse and recycle
post-purchase. Automated machinery could use smart tags to better identify
and sort different types of packaging, speeding up the recycling process and
helping to keep recyclable material out of landfills.
While sustainability-focused brands had been leading the charge against plastic,
local and national governments around the globe are now cracking down.
Europe banned single-use
products starting in 2021, Canada followed suit in the middle of 2023
(though it was just overturned by a federal
and then the UK
In the US, over 400
at the local and state levels have some sort of ban or tax associated with
single-use plastics, with more on the way. And with consumer behavior and
retailer demand driving the sustainability targets private businesses set for
themselves years ago, brands are feeling the pressure to eliminate single-use
“A lot of these goals were put in place; and everybody said, ‘It’s ten years
away.’ Well, 10 years is now coming due in a matter of months,” Nicholas said.
“So, there’s been this ‘Yikes!’ moment with retailers who are now worried about
not meeting their goals; and they’re sending that down to the category managers
saying, ‘You're now responsible for 11 percent of my plastic reduction.’ And the
managers are turning to the product suppliers.”
Besides their use in
experiential packaging with QR codes also provides more practical and
“In the past, we’ve neglected the idea of the package as a post-purchase
engagement vehicle in people's homes, but that’s ending,” Nicholas said.
Practically, the ability to scan packaging is a way to make life easier for the
consumer. One scan could allow someone to easily reorder a product, and those
repurchases can be easily tracked.
On a sustainability level, brands can provide consumers concerned with possible
allergens or an ethical supply chain a way to get nutritional and sourcing
having to do with ingredients. And if they can get that info from a scan, why
not provide them with info on how to reuse, recycle, and/or properly dispose of
Potato chip makers beware: Empty space in packaging (to the point that there’s
sometimes more air than product) is about to disappear. To meet sustainability
targets, reducing carbon emissions is a priority — and one of the greatest
ways we can reduce emissions is by fitting a larger amount of product on a
single pallet. Using fewer pallets translates to fewer containers and vehicles
needed to transport them, which means less carbon emissions released in
The easiest way to fit more product on a pallet is to reduce the size of the
package itself by eliminating the air and wasted space inside it. In some
product verticals, air makes up as much as 64
of a shipment. “Some brands aren’t going to feel too good about this; but
today’s delivery mechanisms and the need for efficiency demand it,” Nicholas
Not only will this reduce emissions, but the reduction in shipping costs is more
cost effective for businesses. “Right-sizing” packaging is something Amazon
doing for its secondary packaging using automated machinery, and we’ll soon see
that when it comes to primary packaging as businesses eliminate wasted space to
meet their targets.
Boomers and their parents were already doing this in their day by returning
glass milk and soda bottles to the same places where they purchased them. The
resurgence is happening because it’s a great way for brands to rein in use of
single-use plastics, increase recycling rates of other materials, and meet their
sustainability targets. What’s new is how reverse supply chain works today.
Of course, this is where automation enters in again; because reclaiming
containers is mostly being done by reverse-vending machines — which are on the
rise. The reverse-vending market — which allows brands to monetize recycling to
give people more incentive to do it — is expected to surpass $630
European countries with deposit-return systems achieve the highest
ranging from 85 percent to 98 percent, depending on the country. In Canada, the
average return rate for deposit containers is 80 percent. These rates are almost
double the rates of curbside recycling.
Nicholas recommends brands share their product goals and challenges with their
packaging provider since there is a wealth of guidance those teams can share
regarding supply chain, shipping and transport, and consumer touchpoints. For
example, because recycled paperboard is one of their main material sources,
WestRock will work with major brands to reclaim their packaging material,
helping them to meet recycling targets. Nicholas says allowing packaging
providers to consult on processes is the best way to truly leverage the power of
a good packaging partner and meet sustainability goals.
Published Dec 18, 2023 2pm EST / 11am PST / 7pm GMT / 8pm CET
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.