4 sustainable packaging drivers in 2016

By Tom Szaky in Sustainable Packaging on January 14, 2016

In an increasingly sustainability driven world, packaging experts and consumer products companies alike are learning that a focus on “green” is quickly becoming a necessity in today’s product environment. On the heels of COP21, an exciting 2015 rife with new developments in the world of green packaging, and with the New Year now in full swing, what are some of the sustainable packaging trends we can expect to hear more about in 2016?


1. Clearer labeling

Concise, clear labeling should be a top priority for major brands this year—from ensuring proper disposal of a piece of product packaging, to clarifying sustainability claims and increasing transparency. Labeling programs like How2Recycle, for example, are a straightforward solution to decreasing confusion as they tell consumers how to properly dispose of and/or recycle product packaging simply and efficiently.

Being honest about product sustainability claims on your packaging is equally important in today’s product market, as consumers are better informed and more skeptical than ever before. For instance, if your plastic is compostable, what are the precise requirements a consumer should be aware of to ensure it will actually decompose? In other words, be honest and transparent with consumers. Don’t hide sustainability claims beneath a veil of greenwashed marketing.


2. Conscious consumer appeal

Major brands and packaging experts failing to address this important and fast-growing population of sustainably-minded consumers will be one step behind in 2016. Thankfully, the industry seems to already be in motion toward a more sustainable future.

Environmentally conscious consumers are sure to notice brands that make their commitments to the environment and social responsibility clear on their packaging: If you’ve committed to increasing the quantity of post-consumer recycled content in your package, give consumers an idea of how you plan to make that promise a reality. Direct them to online resources that outline your plans, promote your partnerships with non-profit organizations and NGOs, and as I’ve noted above, be honest when making a sustainability claim on-pack. Product packaging can give sustainability and social responsibility a voice—make sure consumers can hear it.


3. Bioplastic boom

The market for bio-based plastics made from plant-derived material continues to boom, and with large-scale vertical farming becoming more of a reality, 2016 could be a great year for more sustainably produced bioplastics.

This is all very exciting to see, but I continue to be skeptical of certain bioplastic variants, particularly biodegradables like polylactic acide (PLA). Today, biodegradable and supposedly compostable plastics often have to be processed in an industrial facility to fully decompose. Few of these facilities are even equipped to process these bioplastics and, at the end of the day, composting a material as energy and resource intensive as plastic is incredibly wasteful.

While I’m excited to see where the growth of bioplastics will end up taking us, I also hope leaders in the sustainable packaging world agree with my concerns moving forward through 2016.


4. Lightweight packaging continues

For better or worse, I expect to see more manufacturers jumping onto this particular bandwagon throughout 2016. The benefits of lightweight packaging seem clear enough: reduced material and manufacturing costs, reduced environmental impacts from transportation and potentially less waste bound for landfills.

The lightweighting trend is great in theory, but it doesn’t make sense in every context. When recovery rates for a particular material are very low, lightweighting can be a good waste-diversion strategy (that is, there’s less volume going to landfill). But as recovery rates increase, lightweighting removes value from the recycling stream, undermining that economic incentive to recycle.

In other words, consider the long-term viability of lightweight packaging before committing to it.


Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, also writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, has an upcoming book called "Make Garbage Great" and is the star of the television show "Human Resources" on Pivot TV.

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