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IoPP: Future Strategizing Around Sustainability

Four key steps to developing successful sustainability plans for your brand or CPG include planning further into the long-term, keeping an eye on Europe, taking a fresh look at new materials and tech, and getting involved in interested organizations.

Jim George, IoPP, contributor
Jim George, IoPP, contributor

I hear many conversations among packaging professionals, both IoPP members and elsewhere in the packaging industry. Yes, sometimes people still ask whether sustainability is a fad that will subside. Unquestionably, it is a central driver of packaging’s future role within companies, with a direct bearing on the bottom line and our planet. Packaging consultancy PTIS’s recent survey of packaging thought leaders makes this impact clear: Focus on sustainability and circularity is now the number one impact force for packaging. E-commerce, the leading impact force just three years ago, has slipped to fourth.

Just as likely, sustainability will evolve as developments continue in packaging materials, technology, and regulations.

Sustainable packaging has made significant, if sometimes bumpy progress over the past few years. Here are just a few examples: In beverages, emerging initiatives have increased recyclable/biodegradable content and paper-based bottles—and yes, the merits around using paper or plastic continue to be debated. Players across the medical device industry are working to reduce packaging, make it recyclable or reusable where possible, and put sensitive instruments in surgeons’ hands faster while keeping them sterile until use.

Many companies have created departments or teams specializing in packaging and sustainability. Vice presidents and directors with packaging-facing titles continue to gain a voice in the C-suite.

What’s next?

Yet, much remains to be done. A key point repeated during several recent IoPP webinars is to observe and anticipate where things are heading, rather than trying to merely keep up. Here are four thoughts our speakers emphasized to help packagers strategize forward around sustainability.

1. Plan further into the long-term. Companies often claim to be forward-looking and “ready for the future.” Often, that means less than three years out, with emphasis on short-term costs. Todd Bukowski, a principal at PTIS, says this approach fails to look far enough into the future, and opportunities often are missed for improving packaging’s impact. It’s far more effective to plan five to 10 years ahead. But that is successful, Bukowski says, only with senior management buy-in on matters beyond cost considerations.

2. Take a fresh look at reusability. The idea of reusable packaging, of course, is not new, but very much worth a renewed look. As packagers explore how to reduce their carbon emissions, reusable packaging has been seeing resurgent interest with the emergence of effective global platforms. One is TerraCycle’s Loop Global, which enables product manufacturers and retailers to shift from a disposable supply chain to a durable one. One barrier to reusability has been scalability, particularly around the reverse logistics, but that’s changing, says Clem Schmid, General Manager at Loop. Aside from volume, the key to the model’s future success, she says, is durable package design to drive profitability. Manufacturers, she adds, have opportunities for cost improvements by leveraging design through better nesting, improved compatibility with current packaging lines and repeatability across multiple products.

3. Monitor developments in the EU. Anticipate additional government legislation and regulation that could position the EU as a leader in areas such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), recycling targets, and reuse. U.S. packagers should be watchful and track not only these developments but their impact on packaging. Understand the impact on your company so you’re better prepared for evolutions in areas such as EPR, material bans, and Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) materials.

4. Get involved. You can’t do your best job of shaping your team or company’s sustainability effort by remaining siloed in your own practices. You need to understand what policy leaders are working on and what other companies are doing in their sustainability efforts. Engagement opportunities abound. Consider getting involved with organizations that are playing a more active role with policy leaders. Depending on their purpose, some can lobby and help influence policy while others are positioned to educate. They can lay out, for example, the pros and cons that can change your initial thinking for the better. Just a few options are the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, the Recycling Partnership, the Consortium for Waste Circularity, and IoPP’s Sustainable Packaging Technical Committee, which is re-energizing around the goal of becoming a key go-to education resource on sustainability and packaging; the committee welcomes new members. Your involvement with organizations such as these is a great way to have packaging-specific input on sustainability and circularity practices.

While there is no silver bullet for solutions around sustainability and packaging, this is an exciting time for possibilities and innovation. Be watchful for new developments, get engaged and allow your thinking to evolve. As consumers ask of our industry, “do something.”

The author, Jim George, is the director of education at IoPP. For more information on IoPP, visit

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