Sustainable Packaging in the Food and Grocery Industry: What You Need to Know


Sustainable Packaging in the Food and Grocery Industry: What You Need to Know

Many food manufacturers and grocers have been slow to adopt sustainable packaging. But now, shoppers are voting with their wallets and putting more significant pressure on companies to change.  Buyers’ rising health and environmental concerns are impacting their purchasing decisions. As a result, consumers are not only paying more attention to what food they buy;…

Sustainable Packaging in the Food and Grocery Industry: What You Need to Know

Many food manufacturers and grocers have been slow to adopt sustainable packaging. But now, shoppers are voting with their wallets and putting more significant pressure on companies to change. 

Buyers’ rising health and environmental concerns are impacting their purchasing decisions. As a result, consumers are not only paying more attention to what food they buy; they also care about how companies package it.  

Shoppers are calling for sustainable business practices by food and beverage companies across the board, and packaging is no exception. Finally, leaders and innovators in the industry are beginning to listen and changing how they protect and transport food items. 

It is imperative to understand these emerging trends and what they mean for the future of food and grocery packaging. So read on, and we will explore consumer food and beverage purchasing trends and how they affect your packaging choices. 

Food Demand is Growing 

Food and grocery retail is a cornerstone industry. With the expected rise in the global population and subsequent increase in food demand, the industry will grow even more critical. As a result, experts project that the food and grocery industry will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 5% over the next several years.

The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted how heavily people rely on grocery stores. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, country-wide lockdowns have limited options regarding where and how individuals can purchase food. This phenomenon has led to a spike in demand for groceries.

Retailers such as Kroger witnessed a surge in revenue during the first quarter of 2020. At the macro-level, the global market value of the food and grocery industry grew from $11.7 trillion in 2019 to $13.98 trillion in 2020.

Projected continued growth is great news for food and beverage companies. However, this also means that the environmental impacts of the industry will magnify. With the prevalence of packaged food items, the consequences of unsustainable packaging choices add up quickly.

Food Packaging’s Environmental Impact

Single-use plastics and other nonrecyclable packaging items are prevalent in grocery stores. This practice is problematic as only 14–18% of plastic is currently recycled globally.

This recycling rate is even lower in specific countries. For example, in the United States, the overall plastic recycling rate was only 8.7% in 2018. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in plastic consumption.

Low recycling rates mean that the vast majority of plastics end up in landfills or pollute the environment. According to researchers, approximately 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year. 

Dumping plastic into the ocean does not come without consequences. Plastic in the environment harms wildlife and threatens human health.

Food and beverage items are some of the major culprits of environmental plastic pollution. In the 2020 International Coastal Cleanup, plastic food wrappers, bottles, straws, lids, grocery bags, and to-go containers were in the top ten most common trash items.

In addition to the environmental effects, food and beverage companies have a reputational stake in plastic pollution. Branded garbage washing up on shore can easily negatively affect a company’s standing. 

Current conventional packaging is degrading the environment. However, food packaging offers benefits that many customers are unwilling to give up altogether.

Packaged Food is Here to Stay

United States consumers rated hygiene and food safety as one of the most crucial factors of product packaging according to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company. With increased health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, food packaging provides consumers with an extra comfort level that their food is safe.

The convenience and cost-effectiveness of the packaged food segment also remain irresistible to the majority of consumers. Packaged food comprised over 40% of the food and retail grocery revenue in 2019.

Food packaging has other benefits, such as protection during transport, increased shelf life and freshness, and spoilage and waste prevention. These advantages provide added value to consumers. Furthermore, packaging can help reduce food waste, which is vital to sustainable food production and consumption.

Certain produce items like bananas and avocados are naturally protected. However, shoppers can become upset when they perceive products like these to be ‘overpackaged.’ For other grocery items, most customers accept packaging as a necessary part of product purchases.

 Yet, this does not mean that consumers find all packaging types acceptable.

What Consumers Want

Consumers no longer view all packaging equally. While there is a high demand for packaged food, consumers are raising the bar for brand packaging standards.

Buyers are calling on companies to provide sustainable packaging. Shoppers want to feel good about every aspect of their purchase, including what the product comes in.

Climate change and other environmental issues are on customers’ minds. Fifty-five percent of consumers in the United States are “highly concerned” about how packaging affects the environment. These concerns surrounding packaging are impacting consumer choices when people go grocery shopping.

Buyers are on the lookout for sustainable packaging. About 36% of respondents in the previously mentioned McKinsey & Company survey say they would purchase additional sustainably packaged products if they were more available and better labeled. Additionally, 60–70% of consumers claim they are willing to pay more for a product encased in sustainable packaging.

Buyers want more sustainable packaging options. What does that mean precisely regarding consumer choices?

One major trend is that shoppers are beginning to avoid single-use plastic and other nonrecyclable packaging types. If producers use plastic, customers want it to be recyclable, have a high recycled content, or be compostable.

Reducing single-use packaging consumption is a top consumer action that many individuals plan to take within the next six months. Eco-conscious customers are also taking action on single-use plastic by supporting plastic bans in their community.

Sustainable Food Packaging Tips

For many food brands, packaging is a must. All else being equal, the majority of shoppers say they would select the product in sustainable packaging. Therefore, incorporating sustainable packaging into your brand is a surefire way to help position your product well in the food and beverage market.

These food packaging solutions can help your brand design and produce eco-friendly food packaging:

1) Minimize the amount of packaging material

A minimalist design approach can create efficient and lightweight packaging. This strategy is a win-win for business and the environment. Reducing the amount of packaging lowers costs and uses fewer resources. The total product weight and size also decrease, which improves the product transportation efficiency.

2) Design packaging to be compostable and/or biodegradable

Food packaging is often difficult to recycle due to the remaining food residue. Creating compostable and/or biodegrading packaging provides a sustainable alternative to recycling. After use, the packaging and food residue break down in individual home composts or industrial composting centers, depending on the material specifications.

This process diverts the leftover food and packaging material from the waste stream. Farmers or gardeners can also use the resulting compost as an agricultural input.

3) Develop reusable packaging 

Designing for reuse helps to extend packaging life and prevent it from directly entering the waste stream. As a result, consumers can reuse more durable packaging, which has the added benefit of further promoting the brand. This approach can also be more cost-effective than single-use items in the long run.

4) Use recycled and/or recyclable materials

Instead of using virgin materials and creating more waste, designers can incorporate recycled materials into the packaging to reduce waste entering landfills.

Another significant issue with current grocery food packaging is its lack of recyclability. Creating easily recyclable packaging can help lessen food and grocery waste and the industry’s contribution to environmental pollution.

You can mix and match these solutions depending on your brand’s needs to find the right fit for your business. Beyond sustainability, safety is also a priority in food packaging design. 

Edge2Edge Packaging understands both food safety regulations and green packaging. As an expert service provider, Edge2Edge can help your brand create safe, hygienic, and sustainable food and beverage packaging that aligns with consumer preferences.

Lost in Sustainability Jargon?

Industry Commitments to Sustainable Packaging

Food and beverage industry leaders can no longer ignore the consumer trend of favoring sustainable packaging. While it has been off to a slow start, the industry is beginning to shift to accommodate this consumer demand.

Top food and grocery brands are taking notice of these consumer trends and are changing their packaging for the better. Eighty percent of the top 25 consumer packaged goods businesses are pledging to improve their packaging within the decade. Here is how some of the major food and beverage companies are tackling packaging:

  • Nestle has pledged to switch to 100% recyclable or reusable packaging and cut its virgin plastic use by one-third by 2025.
  • PepsiCo Inc. plans to use 100% compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable packaging and decrease its use of virgin plastic in its beverage packaging by 35% by 2025.
  • Anheuser-Busch InBev aims to use returnable or majority recycled content packaging exclusively by 2025.
  •  Kraft Heinz intends to make 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable packaging and increase its use of recycled materials by 2025.
  •  General Mills committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of its fiber packaging by the end of 2020 and aims to utilize 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2030.

Food and Grocery Packaging Innovators

Making pledges to switch to sustainable packaging is an initial step. Other innovative brands are even further ahead of the curve in changing how we think about food and beverage packaging. These leaders are in the next stage of testing and implementing their creative and sustainable packaging ideas and programs.

1) Burger King

Burger King is testing incorporating reusable containers into its business model. Customers will be able to choose reusable packaging for specific menu items like coffee and sandwiches. Then, they can return the packaging to a Burger King location where it is cleaned and used again. Consumers initially pay a small fee for a deposit, which they receive when they bring the packaging back to the establishment. 

2) Starbucks

Starbucks is also launching its own reusable packaging initiative. The “Borrow a Cup” trial program runs through the end of this month. Consumers at participating locations in Seattle can opt to receive orders in a reusable cup.

This program also requires a refundable deposit, which the buyers receive plus rewards points after returning the cup to a participating location or through an at-home collection service.

3) Trader Joe’s 

Trader Joe’s is a shining example of how to incorporate customer feedback into a business model. The grocery chain had previously received complaints from
eco-conscious consumers about its plastic use.

In response, the company replaced its conventional plastic produce bags with biodegradable and/or compostable ones. Additionally, they switched out styrofoam produce trays for a compostable option.

These simple changes demonstrate their loyalty to their customer base and commitment to sustainability.

These are only a few cases of the growing movement to develop visionary and sustainable packaging solutions to minimize a food or grocery company’s environmental impact and satisfy customers.

Sustainable Packaging Partnerships

When deciding which sustainable packaging option is best for your brand, it is critical to consider the entire product lifecycle. Packaging cannot be sustainable without the back-end infrastructure to recycle, compost, or otherwise process discarded packaging.

As most companies cannot recycle or compost materials themselves, partnerships are critical for achieving packaging sustainability. We have highlighted some of the private and public partnerships that help make sustainable packaging possible.

1) TerraCycle Loop™ Initiative 

TerraCycle focuses on diverting difficult-to-recycle materials from landfills. The organization aims to provide circular solutions to businesses. TerraCycle collects discarded packaging from consumers, recycles it, and provides the recycled materials to producers to create new products or packaging.

In particular, the TerraCycle Loop™ Initiative helps make reusable packaging a viable option for companies. It facilitates the use and transfer of durable and reusable branded packaging by consumers, eliminating the need for single-use plastic. Burger King is working with TerraCycle to launch its reusable container trial.

2) Gimme 5 Program

The types of plastic accepted at recycling centers can vary by municipality. Polypropylene (#5 plastic) is one of the most widely used plastics. However, its recycling rate in the United States is only 3%.

To rectify this issue, the sustainable home and kitchen goods company Preserve launched the Gimme 5 Program. The company collects items made from polypropylene via mail and then melts and tests the material. Preserve, or other companies then make new products from the recycled plastic.

Due to logistical uses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company paused the program in November 2020 and expects to resume its operation this September.

3) Regional composting programs

The United States has yet to create a nationwide composting system. In its place, regional initiatives have sprung up to help divert food waste and compostable packaging from landfills.

One such organization is the Center for EcoTechnology. The company works with businesses and individuals throughout New England to set up composting systems.

Additionally, some states actively facilitate regional composting. For example, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division keeps track of composting operations within the state, making it easier for companies and composting centers to connect.

The US Composting Council is an organization that links compostable product sellers with composting centers throughout the United States to promote organics recycling.

Health and environmental concerns are changing how consumers shop for food. Consumers now expect food packaging that is both safe and sustainable.

This period is a make-it-or-break-it moment for food and beverage companies. There is an enormous opportunity in the food and grocery industry to tip the scale towards sustainable development by shifting to sustainable food packaging.

Sustainable packaging can improve both your bottom line and the planet. Make the switch today to reorient your company to meet customer demands and prepare for the future.