As we see more and more legislation aimed at improving both recyclability and safety of packaging, it is best to first understand your company’s baseline in sustainable packaging. Then, there are a growing number of tools designed to help companies keep track of and meet these evolving requirements.
The past few years have seen notable growth and interest in sustainable packaging regulations. Companies including Mars, Walmart, MilliporeSigma and PepsiCo are leading the way, with innovative programs to revamp their packaging designs to reduce waste and increase recyclability. Yet, all companies are faced with the complex world of government regulations, penalties and guidelines to progress toward safer, more sustainable packaging — so, where to start?
Why the heightened attention to sustainable packaging?
One major reason for the increased attention to sustainable packaging has been the growing reliance on plastic and its associated accumulation of plastic waste that ends up in the environment. Recent studies and campaigns have highlighted these issues — whether it is the massive volumes of plastic in the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean Gyres, plastics in rainwater in the Rocky Mountains, or the litter of plastic bottles and bags on our beaches and in our neighborhoods. A new study found microplastics in the blood of almost 80 percent of people tested. The amount of plastic waste we generate each year has doubled during the last two decades, with about 40 percent of that due to packaging. It’s projected to more than double again by 2040 if we don’t make needed changes.
Another reason for the focus on packaging has been growing awareness of health risks from hazardous chemicals present as additives in some packaging — especially from packaging for foods. The major example most of us are aware of right now is intentionally added per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals that can be in everyday packaging such as pizza boxes and pastry wrappings to prevent grease from leaking through the paperboard. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to male infertility, miscarriage, increased risk to certain types of cancer, liver damage and other known health effects. Bisphenols (e.g., BPA) and polystyrene are other chemicals in food packaging that are a concern.
Which federal or state regulations are most important for companies working to develop sustainable packaging?
There has been limited action at the federal level; and it seems unlikely that is going to change anytime soon. To fill that gap, several states are developing regulations to address the issues — including groundbreaking new legislation in the last year that targets material health/removing chemicals of concern, aggressive recycled content requirements, and implementing extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs.
For example, Washington has led the way with a multi-stakeholder effort to identify alternatives to using PFAS in food packaging; and other states are adopting similar legislation. Maine has enacted a complete ban on PFAS chemicals in consumer products by 2030.
Oregon has set recycling rates for plastic packaging, starting at 25 percent by 2028 and increasing to 70 percent by 2050. New Jersey and Washington have both set requirements that gradually increase minimum recycled content up to as much as 50 percent for some types of new packaging products.
Even more notably, in 2021, Maine was the first state to enact an EPR program into law for paper and packaging waste; and Oregon quickly followed. Both states established ‘producer pays’ mandates for packaging and other materials. Companies producing or using packaging in the scope of the regulations must join, and pay fees to, Producer Responsibility Organizations (or “PROs”). These organizations are used to pay the costs of recycling or disposal of the wastes by local communities and other infrastructure functions. While details vary between states, a company’s PRO fees are based on factors such as weight and volume of covered packaging sold in the state; percent of recycled content; recyclability of the material; and the toxicity of any materials, colorants or other chemical additives.
While PROs have been used in multiple states as a means for giving companies the responsibility for collecting unused medicines, medical sharps/needles, carpets, mattresses, and other consumer goods; what is new in the US is applying this model to waste materials as a market incentive to increase recycling and reduce unnecessary uses of materials — this is the approach that Europe has been taking.
Are there tools available to help develop their sustainable packaging programs?
The state regulations are major steps forward. However, what this means for companies is that they have to keep track of, and meet the requirements of, different states. Most companies look to meet the most robust requirements to avoid having to constantly adapt their products and packaging.
There are tools to help meet these requirements — such as sustainable packaging guidance from FMI, recycled content guidance from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and designing for recyclability guidelines from Walmart and the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
However, it is best to first understand your company’s baseline in sustainable packaging — this means knowing the materials used, if the materials are sustainably sourced or recycled content, how much of the materials are used, if the packages are recyclable, and other metrics. Then, plans can be developed using the regulations and guidance available. Most companies use targets to define the progress needed and track that over time. However, sustainable packaging progress demands more than a few design changes. Systematic change is needed; so, look for collaborative programs that align with your company’s plans and targets — such the US Plastics Pact.