5 Takeaways for Sustainable Packaging from 2021

Lessons from the past year that we’re carrying forward into 2022 

2021 was a notable year for sustainable packaging, with advancements in policy and processing technologies and a growing urgency around packaging’s link to climate change. Yet while the packaging industry is progressing towards a more circular, lower-carbon future, the pace needs to be accelerated. Rapidly operationalizing what we’ve learned from the past year will help build on the momentum in 2022. 

1. EPR has landed in the US, and it’s just getting started 

In 2021, two states, Maine and Oregon, passed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that will have drastic implications for how packaging is managed at its end-of-life in these two states. A deep dive into the two bills gives a glimpse into how EPR laws can differ in their interpretation of what products are covered, how producers will be organized, and how progress will be measured. Many details still need to be determined before these programs are implemented, and this will require packaging stakeholders to engage closely with state governments. 

Notably, these two states are likely to be joined by other states, who had pending legislation that did not pass in 2021 but is likely to do so in coming years. The SPC’s Guide to EPR Proposals is an interactive tool that breaks down proposed and passed bills into various elements. As states continue to work on passing these bills, the Guide will be updated to provide a streamlined way to understand this quickly-evolving space. 

2. Food waste is the packaging industry’s elephant in the room

Addressing food waste is a top solution to climate change, yet the packaging industry has yet to embrace this potential with explicit goals and initiatives. Most manufacturers and brands aren’t actively thinking about how to redesign or optimize their packaging to reduce downstream food waste. Today, many either focus exclusively on the recoverability of their packaging, or assume their packaging already performs well in preventing food waste. Food waste is still the elephant in the room, an enormous yet untapped opportunity to address climate change with better packaging. 

In 2021, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition launched the Food Waste Repackaged project to educate retailers and brands, engage startups, and showcase packaging as a tool for fighting food waste. In 2022, we’ll publish guidance on this topic and continue to explore ways that improved packaging design can help reduce food waste in consumers’ homes. 

3. Recyclability claims are increasingly high stakes 

This past year saw a number of high-profile lawsuits against brands’ takeback recyclability claims, as well as California legislation (SB-343) that aims to limit the use of mobius loops or recyclable claims to only those materials that are recyclable in California. Clearly, the days of vague, unsubstantiated claims of a product’s recyclability are over. Not only do they contribute to consumer confusion and contamination, this year has proven that vague claims are increasingly a legal liability. 

The impact of educating consumers to recycle right with honest, straightforward labeling cannot be understated. The How2Recycle program continues to guide brands on their labeling journey, and will be keeping a close eye on how legislation impacts this space.

4. It’s time to have more nuanced chemical recycling discussions 

Chemical recycling continued to make headlines in 2021, with more brands announcing products that make use of chemically-recycled feedstocks. At the same time, there remains significant uncertainty and skepticism about the sustainability of the various technologies. The Closed Loop Partners’ recently-released report offers new life cycle assessment research that helps answer these questions and guide industry towards a less black-and-white conversation about the role that chemical recycling should play. 

In 2021, the SPC also announced the launch of the Chemical Recycling Collaborative. This initiative will continue into next year, exploring the landscape of chemical recycling technologies and the role that they may play in packaging sustainability. At the same time, the newly-launched Recycled Material Standard will help to ensure the accuracy and transparency of recycled content claims, including for products made using chemically-recycled feedstocks. 

5. Companies now have just 3 years to meet 2025 goals

As the year draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of progress towards sustainability commitments. With many companies aiming for 100% of their packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025, this means there are just three years left to drastically change. Few brands are reporting on their progress, and many still have a long way to go towards fulfilling their commitments. The reputation of the packaging industry, as well as our collective wellbeing, cannot afford to reset unmet goals to a 2030 target.

The SPC hopes to be a resource for companies in their implementation journey, offering guidance on sourcing recycled content and sustainable fiber, designing for compostability, and future recyclability. The SPC Goals Database also helps companies benchmark their goals against peers and the industry at large. In 2022, we’ll be publishing additional guidance on reusable and refillable packaging, and continuing our efforts to help companies design packaging that is more readily recyclable. 

Related Posts