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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
The Road to Zero Waste Is Paved with Incremental Changes

Shifting to new packaging formats can feel daunting for brands because of perceived costs and anticipated operational downtime. But through incremental changes, companies can reduce reliance on less sustainable materials in an efficient, cost-effective and scalable way.

When the pandemic forced the world indoors, e-commerce and home delivery demand exploded, creating new norms for how we interact with everyday goods and the companies that provide them. With the increase in front-door delivery came a heightened consumer awareness of the packaging used to make sure essentials made it safely to their homes. As COVID-19 rages on with a contagious variant, the lessons learned remain relevant and enduring.

In 2020, WestRock surveyed consumers to find out how the pandemic impacted their relationship with packaging. The results were clear: Safety and sustainability rank as top priorities, with 82 percent of respondents agreeing that it is important for brands to balance both consumer safety and concern for the environment when designing product packaging.

One option for brands looking to meet this consumer demand is to incorporate fiber-based solutions into product packaging. Unlike less sustainable alternatives, fiber-based packaging comes from a renewable resource. A leader in fiber-based packaging, WestRock sources from sustainable foresters and is forest-positive in the areas where it operates, ensuring more trees are grown than used. Couple this with using recycled material and you have a great sustainable balance.

Still, shifting to new packaging formats can feel daunting for brands because of perceived costs and anticipated operational downtime. But making this switch does not require an overnight overhaul: Through incremental changes, companies can reduce reliance on less sustainable materials in an efficient, cost-effective and scalable way.

Reducing plastic in production

In Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data from 2018, the packing industry created 82.2 million tons of waste, accounting for 28.1 percent of total generation. A leading contributor to this is single-use packaging used to wrap and protect goods for shipping and storage — such as plastic rings or shrink wrap — which is often not curbside recyclable. Fortunately, there are durable, paperboard-based multipack alternatives that are more sustainable and easily recycled.

Of course, using fiber-based material for packaging must make economic sense; and automation helps create cost efficiencies at scale. With flexible, high-speed automation systems, companies can incorporate more sustainable packaging into existing lines without losing any efficiencies, reducing waste in their operations.

Increasing consumer expectations on sustainability

Packaging allows brands to both protect products and demonstrate to customers a commitment to sustainability, ultimately nurturing a positive brand experience. WestRock’s Pulse Packaging Survey found that key sustainability features that impact brand trust and satisfaction — such as design, recyclability and reusability — increased in importance from 2019 to 2020. 65 percent of consumers place importance on the reusability of packaging, 68 percent on the recyclability, and 68 percent identified environmentally friendly design as being important.

These insights demonstrate that utilizing sustainable packaging can help enhance consumer perception of a brand. Fortunately, this can be achieved without sacrificing durability — there are fiber-based packaging solutions that meet the rigor of standard wear-and-tear in increasingly reusable, recyclable or compostable formats. For example, paperboard alternatives to traditional packaging can offer a strong, flexible and more sustainable option to conventional choices. The product also holds up to handling during transit, consumer handling, and condensation produced from wet and cold environments — which can often lead to packaging breakdown.

Filling the void

One common logistical (and environmental) challenge faced by companies is void fill — the practice of filling empty space left between goods and the containers in which they are shipped. These voids are frequently filled with less sustainable products, such as plastic “peanuts” and air pillows. But rather than investing in fillers, brands can reduce the need for void fill through smart, automated systems that are curbside recyclable and customizable to product size.

Recyclable solutions with in-store appeal

The perceived ease of recycling a product greatly impacts consumer recycling behavior — meaning that when products are clearly recyclable, they are more likely to land in a blue bin than products that aren’t as easily identifiable as such. Today’s fiber-based products allow brands to provide packaging that is customizable for enhanced shelf presence, eliminating the need for mixed material brand differentiators, and ultimately reducing the volume of packaging that ends up in landfills.

For example, WestRock created a way for produce brands to print directly on the package, to provide an original aesthetic that still allows for curbside recyclability when emptied and flattened. With grocery stores being one of the largest contributors to plastic waste, these packaging alternatives provide an all-in-one option to reduce the use of less sustainable products in the produce department.

Ensure safety and quality for end customers

The pandemic put increased emphasis on the safety and security of our packaged goods, especially food products, as use of third-party delivery services increased. The Pulse survey found that 78 percent of consumers say packaging products using materials that keep themselves and their family safe positively impacts their trust in the brand.

For brands looking to increase their use of sustainable packaging without sacrificing consumer confidence, there are fiber-based solutions equipped to deliver the same standards of food safety as traditional solutions. With features such as having a lift flap for order verification, being leak-resistant, and having a one-piece design, the fiber-based alternative both prevents further unrecyclable waste and demonstrates a brand’s commitment to balancing food safety and sustainability.

What’s next?

While there is still progress to be made as we advance toward a more circular economy and lingering uncertainty around COVID-19, sustainability remains an ongoing and collaborative journey. As the world continues to navigate the pandemic, now is the time for businesses to look for ways to make incremental changes to meet consumer demands for more sustainable packaging without sacrificing safety, brand experience or convenience.