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All I Want For Christmas Is Sustainable Packaging


Christmas is a time of joyous celebration for many of us, and of course gift-giving is a tremendous part of the festivities. The holiday therefore serves to dramatically highlight the enormous challenge of sustainable packaging.

The countless parcels delivered in the lead-up to the big day, and of course the gigantic mess on the living room floor after the opening of presents on Christmas morning, demonstrate several of the elements of that challenge: eliminating excessive packaging; moving to fully sustainable packaging; eliminating void space in shipping; ensuring complete recyclability; and guaranteeing availability of recycling outlets.

“There’s a huge new focus on sustainable packaging,” said Miles Roberts, CEO of DS Smith, a London-based provider of corrugated packaging and an industry leader in sustainability. “We’ve seen a huge change in the retail environment, with e-commerce, smaller families, more take-out food, and the trend toward instant consumption. These all play into that intensified interest.” As a result, the industry is attacking all the aspects of the sustainable packaging challenge mentioned above. DS Smith works with some of the biggest CPGs, including Pepsi, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Mondelez, on packaging sustainability initiatives.

Eliminating excessive packaging: Those of us with younger children have ample experience of Christmas mornings spent trying to chop our way through nearly impenetrable packaging without causing ourselves life-threatening injuries along the way. Those dangers could soon be a thing of the past. “Today it’s all about selling packaging based on performance, not on amount,” Roberts explained. “Most people are focused on getting away from plastics, for example. And the weight of a box for a given solution is 30% less today than it was eight or ten years ago.”

Moving to fully sustainable packaging: The move away from plastics is seen here as well. “Fully 91% of all plastic ever made is still with us,” said Roberts. “Our customers are asking, ‘How can you help us with a different solution?’ For fully sustainable packaging, that means moving to fiber with a minimum amount of material, and with a solution to pick up waste.”

Eliminating void space in shipping: Most of us have experienced this: the items you ordered online arrive, and the box they’re in looks surprisingly big. When you open it, you see why – the smaller packages take up a fraction of the room inside, and the rest is filled with packaging material. But that experience, too, may be going away soon. “We have several different solutions to eliminate void space in e-commerce shipping,” Roberts said. “For low-volume vendors, we can provide a kit that will help them fit the box to the size of the shipment. For higher-volume outlets, we can integrate with their ordering systems and analyze orders as they come up, and manufacture custom-fit packages for them with a one- to two-hour lead time that arrive as they fulfill the orders. And for our super-high-volume customers, we can put a machine onsite at their facility to produce packages to the needed sizes.” DS Smith opened a factory in Indiana specifically to serve these needs, after demonstrating the effectiveness of the approach in their European markets.

Eliminating that “shipping of air” has another benefit. “Getting rid of void space reduces transportation damage as well,” said Roberts. “That’s especially important for companies selling high-quality items. For example, one of our customers is a champagne and spirits company. They told us that a few years ago none of their customers would buy online. Now 18% of their business is e-commerce.”

Ensuring complete recyclability: Plastics are recyclable, but different types must be separated, and few municipalities are able to recycle all of them. This leads to confusion, with both consumers and recyclers forced to throw plastics away as a result. And many places had been exporting plastics to China, but that stopped with their ban on foreign plastic waste in mid-2018. Between those realities, and the publicity about ocean waste and microfibers, there’s a growing move away from plastic packaging. The good news is that fiber packaging is more capable than ever before. “One big new development is the performance we can get out of recycled paper,” said Roberts. “We’re able to use more marginal materials now. Recycling used to require high-quality materials only, but now 25% to 30% can be paper that used to go to the landfill. And we use less material than ever for our packaging.”

Guaranteeing availability of recycling outlets: Another outcome of China’s ban on foreign recycling is a fresh look at American recycling overall. Consumers are focused more heavily than ever on being able to have known outlets for all their recycling, and companies are largely moving toward zero-landfill sustainability measures. DS Smith, in addition to the production facility they opened in Indiana, has also opened a U.S. paper recycling facility to serve these needs.

This all comes at the same time as other challenges, such as instant consumption and mass personalization. “E-commerce is all about creating a great experience for the customer in the home,” Roberts said. “That could mean getting their items there quickly, plus knowing their favorite color, their birthday, and those sorts of things that can help you make it a personal experience for them.” So while the pressure is there to make the packaging sustainable, it also has to look good and help with the whole way the customer interacts with the company and the product.

That means producers have to juggle multiple demands. “It’s all about how it makes the customer feel when they get the product,” explained Roberts. “That will be how we differentiate ourselves. It’s how those of us in the packaging business can help our customers increase their sales.”


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