Molly Ungs: Consumers Want Sustainable Packaging. But Are We Ready For It?

By Molly Ungs, Director of Business Development and Partnerships, 50,000feet. She was Director of Creative Services and Partnerships for Sappi for nearly 14 years, where she developed an expertise in packaging materials and sustainability.


Consumers Want Their Favorite Brands To Move To Sustainable Packaging. But Are We Ready For It?


With heightened awareness of global warming and a clearer understanding of just how much trash we generate, consumers are asking brands to step up and address the end of life for both the primary (the packaging that the product itself is housed in or touches) and secondary packaging (think the box that holds a tube of toothpaste) of the goods they produce.

67% of consumers consider it important that the products they purchase are in recyclable packaging, 54% take sustainable packaging into consideration when selecting a product and 74% are willing to pay more for sustainable packaging Consumers are asking for meaningful changes in how the products they purchase are packaged, and we must listen to their feedback to make sure their voices are heard. We must also help them understand the role they play in the life cycle of that packaging and encourage them to become educated about the recycling and recovery process so they can truly have an impact on what ends up in a landfill.

One of the biggest hurdles facing both brands and consumers is confusion about what can and cannot be recycled. Take the rectangular recycling arrows on plastic packaging, for example. This symbol has an identification code that ranges from 1 to 7, depending on the type of plastic. Understandably, consumers read this to mean they can responsibly put these items in the blue recycling bin. However, only those packages with a 1 or 2 are widely recycled in the U.S. Whether or not plastics coded 3 through 7 get recycled depends on local community waste management practices. With label fatigue setting in for some, brands can proactively educate consumers on what they can and cannot recycle. Consumers can also participate in the conversation to drive a wider acceptance of 3 through 7 plastics in their own communities.

Many brands are working to create packaging that is bio-based and compostable. Bio-based bioplastics are plastics made from renewable resources. This is another confusing topic that would benefit from education and clearer instruction from brands. If a bioplastic package is thrown into the recycling bin, it stands a good chance of contaminating the other plastics at the recycling facility. Second, if consumers have a backyard compost, they may assume they can put the compostable packaging in their own compost. Unless otherwise identified, consumers must take compostable packaging to an industrial or commercial composting facility. The struggle is that most consumers don’t have access to these types of facilities. According to the USDA, there are approximately 4,700 industrial composting facilities in the U.S.  Lack of investment, access and awareness are significant factors in the struggle with mainstream composting. This is another opportunity for consumers to join the conversation and advocate for access to composting facilities. And for brands, when creating biobased and compostable packaging, they should include clear instructions on how to dispose of it.

Extended Producer Responsibility, or EPR, is an exciting policy framework that has the possibility to change recycling in the U.S. It shifts the burden of waste management away from local governments and citizens and puts it on the plastic packaging producers. This legislation has the potential to bring funding and efficiency to recycling as well as to incent brands to innovate and design packaging that is recyclable or reusable. At this time, Maine and Oregon are the only two states who have signed into law EPR legislation, but at least eight states are considering EPR bills in 2022. Extended Producer Responsibility has been endorsed by prominent brand owners and retailers, such as Danone, Diageo, L’Oréal, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Walmart and will be an important factor in the future of sustainable packaging. Communication and involvement with local representatives to move this legislation forward is another solid, actionable way consumers can influence change and make a significant impact.

Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade. The things we throw away today will affect many generations that follow us. The most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. Both brands and consumers need to participate in the journey to address and change how we consume and dispose of the products we buy. We can work together to better understand what we can do, what trade-offs we may have to accept, how the recycling and recovery process works and what role we each play in making it successful. Both brands and consumers play a meaningful role in the world we will leave to the generations that follow us.