What’s next for sustainable packaging in 2024?

Mike Jones
29 January, 24

It’s the start of a new year and sustainability has never been more important, with businesses across industries working to slow down the ongoing climate crisis. The packaging sector is one such industry.

Used around the world every day for food, clothes, medicine, and more, the packaging industry’s impact cannot be overstated. With this, however, comes a hefty environmental footprint, creating 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions every year. Sustainable packaging is therefore critical for the good of the planet – and is in high demand as we move into 2024.    

In 2021, a report by WWF found that global internet searches for sustainable goods had grown by 71% from 2016, while a 2023 consumer survey revealed that 8/10 participants would pay more for sustainably sourced products. Further, the UK government is working to facilitate more sustainable packaging, with the revised Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) proposing mandatory reuse targets for all materials. A recent UK ban will also see businesses unable to supply or sell certain single-use plastic items, including plastic cutlery and plates.

The sustainable packaging market is therefore expected to grow and change in a range of ways in 2024.

Sustainable packaging innovation – the top concerns  

While renewably sourced and reusable packaging have become a top priority, more businesses are moving away from traditional fossil-fuel based plastic and compostable materials. In the midst of this transition, companies have starting swapping plastic for paper largely due to negative public view of plastic. Indeed, a 2020 survey found that 62% of consumers view paper as more environmentally friendly and 70% reported actively avoiding plastic packaging altogether.   

Although paper is more easily recycled and biodegrades quicker, there are drawbacks to paper use that shouldn’t be overlooked. For example, the Northern Ireland Assembly found that a paper bag takes four times as much energy to produce than a plastic one. Additionally, because paper is heavier than plastic, during transportation, more vehicles are needed meaning more air pollution. Therefore, when looking at paper manufacturing and transportation, plastic is the more appealing option, illustrating why businesses must consider the whole picture when deciding between paper and plastic.  

Indeed, the Rethink Plastic Alliance recently called for legislative change to eliminate single-use materials rather than swapping one for the other. This was off the back of the recent increase in paper packaging that has resulted in 34 million tonnes of paper packaging waste in the EU alone.

This highlights the need for reusable packaging instead, regardless of the material type. Rising in popularity with leading businesses getting involved such as Costa Coffee, reusable packaging can significantly limit GHG emissions, as reported by a new 2023 study.

The study also emphasised the importance of a sufficient recycling infrastructure to properly collect, treat, and feed waste material back into the supply chain. Many UK retailers, such as Tesco, have started to ban material not supported by an adequate recycling infrastructure, such as compostable plastic.

Italy recently made strides with the recycling of compostable materials, having introduced Europe’s first Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme in 2021. BIOREPACK, Italy’s EPR, holds producers accountable throughout their products’ lifecycle, facilitating and funding the recycling and recovery of compostable packaging. The EPR has achieved a sizable 52% compostable packaging recycling rate, reaching 61% of the country.  

A national recycling infrastructure such as BIOREPACK ensures that products like Mainetti’s compostable material bags are properly sorted and processed at the end of their 6-month lifespan before they are fed back into the supply chain. Made from fully compostable biopolymer resin, Mainetti’s range of compostable flexible packaging is produced in India and includes carrier bags, bin bags, cutlery, cups, and more.

It is critical that, regardless of the material used, sustainable packaging is part of a closed-loop system to be reused again and again.

Keeping the retail industry circular

Despite the importance of a closed-loop recycling system where products are contained in a circular supply chain, a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) found that the current system is overwhelmingly linear. With the plastic packaging sector producing a whopping 78 million tonnes of product every year, only 14% of this is collected for recycling while just 2% is fed back into the supply chain. The rest is left for waste – incinerated, sent to landfill, or left to leak into the environment.

A leader in the circular economy, Mainetti has been a trusted partner to globally respected retail and apparel brands for over sixty years. Revolutionising the retail industry with a range of innovative sustainable packaging solutions and recycling processes, Mainetti strives to uphold the EMF’s circular mission.

With forty years of experience operating in the circular economy, Mainetti launched their closed-loop polythene recycling process, Polyloop, in 2021. The process clears any print and labelling from the materials, creating the highest level of clarity of post-consumer recycled content, making Polyloop the world’s first global initiative that allows retailers – including Superdry and Very.co.uk – to source clear LDPE film containing at least 30 percent and up to 100 percent recycled material.

Processing, collecting, and cleaning post-consumer LDPE film, Polyloop distributes the material to Mainetti’s several manufacturing sites in the UK, Italy, Türkiye, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and China.

What’s next for the packaging industry?

As government action and consumer pressure grows against the backdrop of an increasingly severe climate crisis, the packaging industry is starting to prioritise the development of vital sustainable solutions. However, this transformation isn’t as straight forward as it seems. With the global packaging supply chain massively linear, businesses must consider factors such as how reusable the product is and if the country has a recycling infrastructure that can feed the waste back into the supply chain at the end of its life.

In short, businesses must prioritise circularity if the packaging sector is to begin to rectify the environmental damage created by the industry and properly counter the devastating effects of the climate crisis.

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