When the packaging sustainability tsunami started to surge back at the turn of the century (aka the year 2000), many packaging professionals were overwhelmed with all the work to be done. Despite the multitude of ideas for improvement, the best advice at the time was to look for low-hanging fruit and start there. Then build on those successes, set new goals, and take the next step in the journey. Many brand owners did just that — are still doing that — and making great headway.
So, approximately 20 years into this modern sustainable packaging “movement,” the recent news from Mars Wrigley made me squint. The company eliminated the plastic overwrap film on M&M’S Theater Boxes sold at theaters and retail stores in the US. Doing so made the now-only-paper package 100% recyclable and saved 98 metric tons of PP waste per year. Both undeniably positive outcomes, especially with paper packaging being so much in favor these days and plastic packaging, um, not.
But I couldn’t help think …talk about low-hanging fruit. They had to bend over to get this one.
All they did was remove the polypropylene (PP) overwrap on a carton that was always recyclable by itself. They made no other change to the package. So, we asked if there was any difference in the shelf life. Not really. Non-issue. Product quality at consumption was still well into the acceptable zone.
I squinted even harder and pursed my lips. Then why have the overwrap film in the first place?!
So I went back to Mars Wrigley with a couple more questions.
How long have the Theater Boxes had an overwrap? Answer: More than 20 years, according to Justin Comes, VP of R&D at Mars Wrigley.
Why wait so long to remove it? “The quality and food safety standards of our products is our top priority and one way we ensure these standards are met, is through packaging,” says Comes. “As result, we go through a rigorous process to make sure we never compromise quality including extensive innovation, research and development, and shelf-life testing.
“We are moving quickly to transform our packaging portfolio,” Comes continues, “and are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to find sustainable solutions to further Mars’ commitment to helping build a circular economy where packaging never becomes waste.”
Anyone who knows me, knows I like to focus on the positive. But something about this felt…off. Maybe it was Mars Wrigley’s effort to promote this as a substantial sustainability win — in 2022 — when there are so many other more complex packaging sustainability projects happening.
I reached out to my inner circle of veteran packaging commentators — Packaging Digest senior technical editor Rick Lingle and contributing writer Kate Bertrand Connolly — to see if they saw something in this that I was missing. They did, actually.
Rick: “They seem late to the party with this. Reduce is like the first step of sustainability … though better done now than never. My takeaway is that brands still find packaging reductions right under their noses. Also, this may spark other brand owners of overwrapped products to reconsider their extra layer.”
Kate: “I appreciate that, with this one change, the company gained two sustainability benefits: Less PP waste and a fully recyclable package. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much PP they were able to eliminate by just getting rid of the overwrap. I imagine that Mars Wrigley’s strategic editing of the package design also reduces the number of steps in the packaging operation.”
All good points.
What do you think?