The Future of Plastic Packaging Amid Sustainability Pressures

November 2022

Plastic holds leading position in global packaging demand, accounting for almost two thirds of retail sales, with versatility and efficiency key to its success. Plastic is, however, under increasing pressure as a source of waste. To establish plastic as a sustainable packaging choice for brands, retailers, consumers and regulators, greater pursuit of circularity is paramount, and is a strong area of innovation. Embedding renewable design and investing in recycling and reuse are core priorities.

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Key Findings

A changing retail landscape keeps demand for plastic packaging high

Plastic packaging shows resilience in the face of crises and a changing retail landscape; valued for its pandemic-hygienic safety as retail grocery purchases peaked. Hybrid lifestyles means demand for packaged goods remains high while cost-of-living pressures see more time and meals at home. Plastic’s versatility across category and pack size secures its leading position.

Consumers and regulators challenge plastic packaging on its environmental position and presence as waste

Consumer concern about climate change and the environment is widespread and growing. Reducing plastic use and choosing sustainable packaging are top action points for consumers. Concern is reflected in regulation, in plastic waste import bans, taxes and targets aiming to improve plastic collection, recycling, recyclability and reuse to curb its presence as waste.

Consumers may view plastic poorly but trust recyclables; education on plastic’s renewable attributes is key

Consumers regard plastic as the least eco-friendly material, but they understand and trust the concept of recyclability, far above green labels like organic or fair-trade. This is an area where brands and packagers can better communicate and educate on plastic’s eco credentials on-pack.

Corporate brand/packager action towards circular plastics strengthens but far greater recovery is needed

Designing for a circular economy is being embedded in brand and packager pledges, with widespread innovation, from removing surplus and difficult-to-recycle plastics to advancing renewable designs and reuse models. Apart from PET and HDPE, plastic, while efficient in its lightweight nature, lags in recycling. Collaboration to improve collection can fuel reuse.

Reducing single-use plastic via reuse is key to its circularity; business aligns with recycling as a top climate priority

Across the consumer packaging value chain, pledges to increase recyclability, recycling and reuse, and to lower carbon footprint are common, and essential to ensure plastic is perceived as more than single-use. Recycling is a top sustainability and climate investment priority for businesses and demand for recyclate is high. Action to close the loop on plastic is a must.

Scope
Key findings
Crisis-resilient nature of packaging (including plastic) in the consumer goods marketplace
E-commerce: A transformative pandemic-related growth accelerator
Consumers expect service and increasingly, sustainability from their retail purchases
Inflationary cost pressures are high: Pack sizing as one instrument to mitigate the impact
Material view: Plastic’s versatility across category and size mix explains its strength
Plastic is set to increase share, but will be more renewable in nature
Consumers, regulators and corporations seek a plastic waste-free future
The consumer: Rise of the eco-conscious consumer as environmental concerns grow
Reducing plastics use is the top action area for consumers wanting to live sustainably
Recyclable: Most trusted of green product labels; positive sign of consumer understanding
Actionable pack descriptors resonate: Recyclable regarded most sustainable, plastic, least
Consumers may seek sustainable packaging but not all are willing to pay a premium for it
The regulators: Sustainability legislation targets material circularity and eradication of waste
Europe leads on regulation via taxation and the single-use plastic directive
Updates to Europe’s PPWD expected soon; concern on implementing goals of the Green Deal
Greater global harmonisation on the way as UNEA endorses legally-binding plastic treaty
Key pillars to attaining circularity in plastic packaging
Industries widely commit to renewable plastics, recycling and to reducing waste
Packaging commitments from consumer goods industry leaders…
…and from packaging suppliers across the materials spectrum
Removal: Responses to remove plastic are apparent across the supply chain
Designing rigids for recycling: PET in Europe fares best but still some way to go
Brands switching to transparent PET to improve material recyclability and reuse
Circularity in flexible plastics: Material efficiency positive and the quest for recyclability
Mono-materials support brands’ drive to reduce, refill, recycle and reuse
Kerb-side recyclable mono-material brand launches
Retailer take-back schemes help bridge flexibles’ recycling gap
Recyclable and recycled reduces waste and emissions: Let consumers know on pack
Collaboration and investment in recycling are key to ensuring access to sustainable plastics
Refillable reuse models gather momentum but remain niche
Beauty: From in-store to on-line, interest in refillable beauty strengthens
Plastic alternatives: The potential for fibre and metal
Food: Uptake in paper to reduce use of difficult-to recycle plastics
Bio-/plant-based polymers also hold a role
Business to prioritise sustainability investment on packaging and waste/recycling
Mondelez continues to invest in redesign, collection and recycling to advance circularity
Core expectations for the future of plastic packaging amid sustainability pressures
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