Suzanne Shelton and Adam Gendell
Published 2 years ago.
About a 10 minute read.
Image: Laura James/Pexels
As hopes mount for a new, post-COVID “normal,” many systems are in flux and the state of sustainable packaging is once again in question. How will businesses adapt? Or re-adapt? Or un-adapt? Shelton Group CEO Suzanne Shelton and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s Adam Gendell share their insights.
Eyes are brightening as they look towards the future. Spring is around the
corner, vaccines are beginning to roll out, and visions of a new, post-COVID
are beginning to come into focus. As hopes mount for this potential inflection
point in the 21st century, changes are once again on the horizon and the state
of sustainable packaging is once again in question. How will businesses adapt?
Or re-adapt? Or un-adapt? How should the past, current, and future states of
sustainable packaging be viewed in light of the rapid pace of change?
To provide some insight, Suzanne Shelton, President and CEO of Shelton
Group; and Adam Gendell, Associate Director of the
Sustainable Packaging Coalition, have
teamed up to share their thoughts.
Adam Gendell: Let’s start by recapping what’s happened in the world of
over the past year or so. It’s been an interesting ride; and while there are
themes, it’s challenging to generalize across the whole industry. Corporate
approaches to sustainable packaging during the pandemic have varied
Overall, I don’t think the “pause button” was hit the way I expected it to,
although we know that many companies did have to put their sustainable packaging
projects in cryogenic stasis. Some of those projects were literally physically
impossible to continue: Research and development labs were closed; employees
were ordered to work from home; hands-on trials were suspended. Some of those
projects were eventually resumed — some were not. Other projects were scuttled
due to financial uncertainty, though I don’t perceive that to have been an
overarching trend. The cynic in me thinks that sustainability is easy for
companies to put on the chopping block whenever budgets are tight, but the
evidence we’ve seen suggests that it largely escaped the crunch. That’s a
promising sign! If sustainability was once viewed by business as a “nice to
have,” I think it’s worked its way into being considered an essential line item.
This was a true test of that; and for packaging, it appears that the test was
passed. I think we can be encouraged by this.
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So, the forward-looking work has mostly persevered through the pandemic; but we
can’t say the same about the sustainable packaging measures that were supposed
to be in place through 2020. I don’t think anything was more impacted than
Just as so many companies were taking bold steps into that great unknown,
hygiene skyrocketed to the top of consumers’ minds. Reusable packaging hadn’t
yet built trust with consumers around hygiene; and for reasons real or
perceived, it had to return to the backburner while single-use packaging
— sometimes with a bit of cringeworthy “I told you so” messaging from the
single-use packaging suppliers.
The other big hit was that companies weren’t able to use as much recycled
content as they had planned. The already-volatile recycling system was jolted,
supply chains were disrupted, and the pricing and availability of recycled
content became highly unpredictable. Nothing was hit harder than PET — as the
majority of companies using recycled PET in packaging need food-grade material
that is predominantly supplied by the bottle redemption centers in “bottle bill”
states, which were largely suspended for months on end.
Ultimately, the pandemic created an atmosphere in which many asked for the
benefit of the doubt — promising that their sustainability commitments were
still intact and offering assurance that any instance of standing still or
stepping backwards was a regrettable but necessary, temporary measure. This
mindset wasn’t at all exclusive to packaging — 2020 felt like a year where
everybody asked for a “free pass” for something, and those requests were
largely accepted. I think the big question now is: Is industry still getting a
“free pass” these days? And, if so, what happens when that expires?
Suzanne Shelton: So, let’s ground this in some of Shelton Group’s ongoing
Pulse™ data: Pre-pandemic, 67 percent of
Americans said companies had ‘some’ to ‘very much’ responsibility for the
end-of-life disposal of products they manufacture. As of May 2020, smack in the
middle of the pandemic, that number dropped to 54 percent. So, we have indeed
seen some “backslide,” or at least willingness for consumers to give
manufacturers and brands a pass — for now. It’s also worth noting that only 16
percent of Americans said in May 2020 that manufacturers had zero or little
responsibility for the disposal of their products at the end of life.
Based on what we saw in our data through the 2008 financial crisis, I believe
we’ll see this revert once we’re on the other side of COVID. In 2006-7, we saw
an increasing interest in sustainability and increasing expectations from
Americans of the companies they buy from. When the economy hit the skids, all of
that contracted. But as the economy got on solid footing again, we saw interest
and expectations for sustainability rise. We think we’ll see a similar situation
here. Further, it’s not like the plastics-in-the-ocean problem is going away,
unfortunately. It’s getting worse. And horrifying images of consumer products
harming marine life will continue to proliferate social media. Those images are
incredibly emotionally jarring and make us as humans feel like accomplices. That
could be my soda ring strangling that cute otter! My straw up the sweet
80 percent of Americans say the bare minimum they can do for the environment is
to recycle. And we claim to be diligently chucking stuff in our blue bins. Now,
we all know most Americans don’t actually understand what’s really recyclable,
so we’re “recycling” a lot of things that aren’t actually
But the point is that people can’t get their heads around this problem: “I’m
doing my part, and I see my neighbors doing their part ... we’re all rolling our
overflowing recycling bins to the curb. How can we have so much plastic in the
ocean? Why isn’t it getting
We already see a tide of frustration turning towards manufacturers. I predict in
the next 3-4 years that frustration will grow to outrage from mainstream
Americans that manufacturers are actually allowed to make packaging that’s not
AG: The relationship between the packaging community and the recycling
community has always been a bit tenuous, and I sense that the pandemic has
elevated many of the issues. There’s a massive collision happening. Brand owners
have been making substantial pledges framed around recycling being the
solution; and municipal governments, who act as the chief financiers of
recycling, are feeling the pain of budget crunches and a financial recycling
equation that has trended negatively for some years. The question of “who’s
supposed to pay for all this?” has come front and center, and I think we should
expect that debate to rage on.
It’s not all bad news around recycling, though. Many folks thought that
recycling would be a casualty of the pandemic; and for the most part, it hasn’t
suffered the way many thought. There was a news burst about recycling programs
getting cut and speculative concern about the safety and sanitation of
recycling; but recycling was deemed an essential service, and nearly all of the
programs that were suspended — the vast majority of which occurred in smaller
communities — have resumed. “Suspension,” it turns out, was not secret code
for “we’re playing the virus card as justification to cancel something we wanted
to cancel anyway.” I think that public outcry around waste and the environment
translates well into political pressure to maintain recycling.
But that’s the new crux of it: “Maintaining” recycling isn’t good enough. For
industry to make good on its promises, recycling has to undergo transformative
This isn’t a question of whether recycling can survive through uncertain times,
but rather a question of how recycling can reach ambitious new heights in
uncertain times. I’m not sure that there’s sufficient public pressure to
expand and grow recycling. There’s industry pressure, but that brings us
back to the debate of who pays. It’s a delicate situation. The economy appears
to be recovering; but no municipality wants to choose between recycling and
things like schools, roads, hospitals and social services. For industry to
alleviate those consumer concerns, something has to change.
So, the next question is: What needs to change? What does industry need to do
to meet consumer expectations around sustainable packaging?
SS: Given the trend lines we saw pre-COVID, and our experience with the
Great Recession, I think consumer expectations will align with a lot of the 2025
goals manufacturers have. Although, based on the qualitative insights work we’ve
done over the years, I don’t think most Americans will think 25 percent recycled
content in 2025 is enough. They don’t understand that there’s literally not
enough recycled content to go around, and I don’t think you win by trying to get
them to understand that. I think you win by helping consumers understand what
you’re doing to help upgrade the recycling system and upgrade your packaging
designs to ensure every package you make is truly easily recyclable — and even
The most sustainable package would probably be one you can use over and over.
But the truth is, most mainstream Americans don’t really want to have to hassle
with refillables/reusables. It’s pretty easy if we’re talking about water
bottles (except when you’re on a road trip and there are no refilling stations),
but it’s hard for just about every other area — like remembering to bring your
to a restaurant or, worse, remembering to clean and then bring laundry detergent
bottles to the store. What Americans really want from industry is to figure it
out. Make everything from 100 percent recycled content and make everything 100
percent recyclable. Better, make most packaging biobased and
so we don’t even have to worry about plastics in the ocean ... everything that’s
single-use just returns itself to the earth.
To many people reading this, that likely sounds like a fantasy. And you may be
thinking, “Right ... who will pay for all of this?” The truth is that most
Americans think Corporate America is rolling in dough. They think executives are
way overpaid, companies have lots of profits sitting around, and companies
should just cover the cost. We’ve grown to depend on Corporate America to
innovate because it has traditionally done that so well. Look at how many things
we all have now at such a low cost! If we can make computers that we carry
around in our pockets that only cost a few hundred bucks, can’t industry solve
the waste problem — and do it so it doesn’t cost the consumer a lot of money?
Again, not my point of view — but that’s how average Americans see it. And
that’s what industry needs to contend with as it looks to meet their
Between the perseverance of corporate pledges, the expected resurgence of
consumer pressure, and the rapidly evolving relationship between industry and
policymakers, plenty of twists and turns will be made on the next leg of the
sustainable packaging journey. We can expect areas such as recycling, reusable
packaging, and recycled content to receive a renewed sense of urgency; and in
many ways, the conversation on sustainable packaging will pick up right where it
left off pre-pandemic. Regardless of 2020, the need for sustainable packaging
has remained heightened — and it’s clear that even a worldwide disruption isn’t
capable of changing the overarching trajectory of sustainable packaging.
Published Apr 5, 2021 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors.
Adam brings a collaborative, systems thinking approach to circular economy challenges, focusing on building bridges between stakeholder groups and translating macro trends into action. As part of the Circular Ventures team, Adam serves as point lead for the PET Recycling Coalition, an impact-driven initiative aimed broadening the circularity of PET and unlocking new sources of recycled content. Adam’s approach is grounded in an extensive understanding of sustainable material flows and life cycle thinking, having studied the international landscape of recycling policy and emerging recovery technologies at Eunomia Research & Consulting as well as bringing over a decade of experience working across the packaging and packaged goods value chain at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Adam has worked closely with multi-national corporations, NGOs, startups, government agencies, and academic institutions, gaining a deep appreciation for the value of diverse perspectives in addressing systemic challenges. At The Recycling Partnership, Adam works to bring it all together by guiding big steps towards a more resilient and sustainable materials economy.