Littering is a hot button in the packaging space. Year after year, plastic pollution in the environment continues to increase, and littering is considered a big contributor to this problem. Brands may feel they have little control over consumer behavior or attitudes post-purchase — that when packaging is littered, it is done intentionally and willfully by those who don’t care about the environment.
While there is no concrete data explaining how much littering is intentional vs. unintentional (especially in natural vs. urban environments), it’s possible that a significant portion of what is littered in certain contexts is unintentional, and that poor packaging design is at fault. Parts of a package may detach, blow away, fall out of pockets, and generally become too small and lightweight to manage correctly. These smaller, less manageable parts of packaging can be called “litterable,” or highly likely to become litter due to the design or size.
Here are three questions to help determine if a package has elements that are highly likely to become litter:
1. Does it require tearing to open?
Many on-the-go packages are multi-material flexible formats that require consumers to tear off a serrated section to access the product. Granola bars, candy wrappers, juice box straws, and snack pouches are just some of the product categories that use this type of design. The resulting “tear-off bits'' are lightweight and small making it easy for them to slip out of a pocket or bag unnoticed. Even when well-intentioned consumers correctly place the tear-off portion in a garbage bin, it may still be carried away by wind or rain.
Coastal cleanup data from the Ocean Conservancy presents these packaging types as potentially contributing to a big problem — “food wrappers (candy, chips, etc.)” were the #1 item found during beach cleanups in 2020. This litter type has risen from earlier years when food wrappers were in the top 10 but not in first place.
So what’s the solution? Companies should consider new packaging designs that do not require consumers creating small tidbits of waste. As they experiment with alternative materials like paper for wrappers, companies can also pursue innovative types of seals and closures to move away from tearable formats and “litterable” packaging types.
2. Does it have components that come off?
Components that twist off, usually as part of the process of opening a package, are used across a number of product categories, including not just caps for bottled water, juices, and baby food, but also the inner seals for aseptic cartons.
The same Ocean Conservancy cleanup data shows that caps are some of the most frequently littered items, coming in at #4 on the 2020 list. It’s not clear why caps are often found by themselves — Do they pop off accidentally? Do consumers forget to close their bottles? In any case, it’s clear that a bottle can no longer perform the primary function of containing liquid if the cap is missing.
New legislation is attempting to tackle this problem head on. In the European Union, the Single Use Plastics Directive requires tethered caps by 2024, and similar legislation was proposed in California in 2018. Companies have worked to meet the EU requirement, and the technology is available to meet the deadline early, as evidenced by the recent announcement from SIG. Unfortunately, until more companies embrace this or a similar design for twist-off packaging, we will continue to see rogue bottle caps in the environment.
3. Does it include small accessory components such as ties or stickers?
When you start noticing the number of small accessory components associated with packaging, it is astounding. Produce stickers are a key example, but bread bag tags, seals, and twist ties are also suspects. These small items are not recyclable, and are often set aside as consumers focus on accessing and enjoying the product. When they’re finished with the product, there is often no place to put the accessory component.
To address this source of litter, companies will need to consider both material innovation and elimination. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation offers suggestions for how to approach eliminating packaging components, using either direct elimination or innovative elimination. Which one is most appropriate will depend on whether an item of packaging serves an essential function, such as protection, containment, convenience, communication, and efficiency.
In the case of produce stickers, making these compostable would solve a huge problem for composting facilities, as well as consumers who compost at home. Removing components such as seals altogether can also result in direct cost-savings. For example, SonaeMC removed the tear-off seal on its jars of olives and jams, saving 0.0025€ EUR per jar, or approximately 8,000€ EUR per year.
Tiny “litterable” packaging pieces may seem like a small problem, but they amount to huge inefficiencies in our current package/product system. By addressing this problem, companies can offer stand-out designs for consumers and help reduce the source of packaging pollution.