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December 5, 2023
5 Min Read
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In my role as Executive Director of the Sustainable Packaging Research, Information and Networking Group (SPRING), I see many sustainability factors forming over the plastic packaging horizon. PlasticsToday editors asked me to name what I consider to be the top five as we move into 2024.
1. Federal interest and motivation to first create, and then successfully apply, national recycling mandates.
In April 2023, the Senate’s Environment & Public Works (EPW) committee introduced bipartisan legislation designed to improve US recycling and composting systems.
Two bills were introduced: The Recycling and Composting Accountability Act, which would improve the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to gather data on our nation’s recycling systems and explore opportunities for implementing a national composting strategy, and the Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act of 2023, which would allow EPA to create a pilot program to improve recycling services in underserved areas.
The American Chemistry Council, AMERIPEN, APR and other relevant industry and non-profit organizations all support this legislation. It could go a long way towards increasing the availability and decreasing the cost of high-quality, PET recyclable/recycled material. National legislation might also eliminate the perceived need for cumbersome state by state EPR programs.
2. California’s march to make both the EPA and FTC irrelevant.
On October 7, 2023, Governor Newsom signed SB 253, a law requiring companies that operate in California and generate over $1 billion in annual revenues to disclose their direct and indirect emissions. On the same day, he signed SB 261, which requires companies with annual revenues of at least $500 million to disclose information regarding their climate risk management.
This was on top of the June 30 signing of The Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act (SB 54), which shifts plastic pollution responsibilities in California from consumers to producers. The law’s objective is a 25% reduction of single-use plastic packaging used in the state by 2032.
October 7 was also the day that Newsom signed AB-1305, the Voluntary Carbon Market Disclosures Act (VCMDA). The VCMDA is intended to address “greenwashing” by requiring detailed disclosure of the methodology for tracking and verifying claims regarding net zero, carbon neutrality or emissions reductions, as well as disclosure regarding voluntary carbon offsets (VCOs) purchased, used, marketed, or sold within the state.
You can avoid these laws by not doing business in California, or by ensuring that no one in California sees your marketing, advertising, or sales messaging. This includes social media.
Good luck with that.
3. Ironically, source reduction is now being defined as a strategy to promote reduced plastic usage rather than simply reduced material usage.
Replace a lightweight plastic package with a heavier paper one? As my packaging efficiency research has demonstrated many times over the last 30 years, this is generally not a scientifically valid approach to reductions in solid waste or greenhouse gas generation. The irony here is that plastic packaging was able to penetrate packaging markets because it was the most source reduced material. Today, the tables are turning such that consumers are being led to believe that eliminating plastic is the best way to source reduce packaging.
As I’ve written many times, the most sustainable package is the one that provides maximum product value with minimum economic, environmental, and social waste. We cannot afford to remove key materials from our sustainability toolboxes simply to satisfy the non-scientific posturing of certain political groups and NGOs.
4. Barriers and adhesives are taking on more strategic roles in the sustainable packaging universe.
Again, the goal here is to replace fossil fuel-based and/or non-recyclable materials that reduce or contaminate packaging recovery streams. This situation is allowing companies such as Ingredion to promote the oil and grease resistant properties of starch-based coatings, which are plant based, recyclable, and compostable. It also has adhesive label and packaging producers such as Avery Dennison, HB Fuller, Henkel, and Bostik scrambling for plastic-free solutions as well.
Besides starch, “back to the future” coatings might contain cellulose or lignin, all of which are plant based. Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), a bio-resin, is also in the mix, but is currently too expensive to consider for broadscale use. Companies such as Danimer Scientific are investing mightily to scale PHA production and bring the cost down to reasonable levels, in the $2 per pound range.
5. The desire for science-based, sustainable packaging decisions appears to be declining, as the perceived need for packaging cost control increases.
I can name at least two global CPGs that now have their packaging functions report into their purchasing departments. (To protect my friends and colleagues who work there, I cannot name names at this time.)
This type of reorganization means that marketing department desires to bend to generally uninformed consumer demands and perceptions will reduce or eliminate science-based decision making.
My judgement says that long term, this will lead to greater scrutiny by NGOs and regulators and continue trend #2, in which states such as California, New York, Vermont, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado step into the science-based decision-making void.
Sadly, the various political dispositions in each state will create a confusing patchwork of guidelines, laws, and regulations.
If you think that I’m negative regarding the future of plastic packaging, I’m not.
We all know that in the grand scheme of what needs to be done to build sustainable societies, packaging has a much smaller role to play than reducing dependence on fossil fuel-based energy sources and increasing energy efficiency at work, home, and play. (Of course, this doesn’t give the industry a ‘get out of jail free’ card to play, especially when it comes to marine debris, pollution, and chemicals of concern.)
Use this time to get your creative and innovation juices flowing, while serving the needs of both your customers and theirs.
Happy New Year!
Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. He is Executive Director at SPRING, The Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group. You can also write him at [email protected] or visit his LinkedIn profile.
About the Author(s)
Robert Lilienfeld Consulting
Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved in sustainable packaging for 25 years, working as a marketing executive, consultant, strategic planner, editor, writer, and communications expert. He’s President of Robert Lilienfeld Consulting, working with materials suppliers, converters, trade associations, retailers, and brand owners. He also recently founded SPRING, The Sustainable Packaging Research, Information, and Networking Group. Reach him at [email protected].
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