The Players & Pathways To Packaging Sustainability Wins

After years of working in the food production space, it’s clear that food producers and consumers alike want to know more about how their actions can contribute to—or compromise—our roles as environmental stewards. For years, U.S. consumers have heard the mantra “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” and many of us, no matter where we live, do our best to decrease litter and reduce waste. While we are considering our individual environmental sustainability actions, many of us also recognize the importance of efforts being enhanced within the domestic food production industry to improve rates of recycling food packaging and reduce the amount of materials needed to produce new packaging. When thinking about enhancing packaging sustainability efforts, both consumers and industry have a role to play.

The Path To Packaging Recycling Wins

To better understand the packaging recycling pathways and how we can increase our “wins” in packaging sustainability, we must recognize the roles of three key players. First, there are the companies that manufacture materials needed to make packaging. Next there are companies that produce foods and beverages and utilize those materials to hold their products. Then there’s the consumers who buy packaged goods, and who may or may not recycle that packaging. While the companies that manufacture packaging materials and produce our foods and beverages hold a great deal of power in helping us achieve sustainability wins, consumers play a key role in closing the sustainability loop by recycling or choosing their purchases.

Consumer Insights Are Key To Making The Right Plays

Over the past decade, the annual IFIC Food and Health Survey has shown that taste, price, and healthfulness are the top characteristics consumers care about when making a food or beverage purchase. While environmental sustainability has historically been a lower-ranked purchase driver, the past several years have shown a shift in this area, with around 40% of consumers ranking sustainability as a top driver. So, while other drivers still outrank, environmental sustainability is clearly on consumers’ minds.

Digging deeper into what it means to choose an environmentally sustainable food or beverage, we asked people how important certain attributes are while making a purchase decision. Options included general accessibility of the product, animal welfare related to the production of the product, the presence of bioengineered ingredients, social sustainability (food system personnel support), a farm’s use of natural resources, carbon footprint minimization, and the recyclability of packaging. Forty percent (40%) of consumers indicated that carbon footprint minimization was important, and 38% said the same for packaging recyclability. As a follow-up question for the 40% of Americans citing carbon footprint minimization impacting their choice, we asked what specific indicators they were looking for to signal carbon footprint minimization. The survey takers said that packaging recyclability, reusability, and recycled content were top characteristics that served as indicators of carbon footprint minimization (See the graph below; the full data set can be viewed here).

A graph of a productDescription automatically generated

Our recently published 2023 IFIC Climate Change Perceptions and Purchase Impacts research reinforces the IFIC Food and Health Survey data when it comes to purchasing decisions impacted by climate change and environmental sustainability. One takeaway from this research was the further confirmation that consumers are thinking about how food packaging is tied to climate change when shopping. Specifically, we asked, “How concerned are you about the following attributes when it comes to foods and beverages and their impact on climate change?” The list of attributes included several different points along the food supply chain, from a product’s origin to its purchase—including farming, packaging waste, food waste, frequency of consumption, and where products are available for purchase. Once again, packaging waste rose to the top of the list for consumers. How food was grown and food waste were also top responses. (See the graph below, and here.)

A graph with numbers and textDescription automatically generated with medium confidence

Finding The Right Path Foward

Packaging helps us safely enjoy and gain access to many foods and beverages we love; its use is inescapable. Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the importance of boosting consumer and manufacturer recycling rates and seeking more methods to address packaging sustainability. While there have been some notable positive strides made by the industry, environmental organizations, and consumers, consumer research indicates that there are many paths forward to make more wins. The key will be finding the paths of least resistance for specific consumer groups and goods. If we can connect consumers values regarding sustainability to positive emotions, and “easy” experiences associated with packaging and recycling, we are more likely to elicit repeated behaviors and ultimately, a winning record.