Environmentally friendly packaging by Dufaylite
Sustainable packaging by Dufaylite

Environmentally Friendly Packaging Revolution –
Packaging Trends for 2021


As green things tend to, the movement for going green is growing. Enough pressure has been placed on political decision makers that we’re beginning to see significant policies being implemented. As of April next year, there’ll be a ‘Plastic Tax’ applied to all packaging that uses less than 30% recycled plastic. Essentially, where plastic is used in packaging, at least 30% needs to be made from recycled plastic. The tax could go further and try to force more recycling, but it’s certainly a start.

This means that the race is on for manufacturers to make their products ship and store in as eco friendly packaging as possible – that means a huge shift to biodegradable, reusable, and easily recyclable materials. 

However, a significant shift to using recyclable materials relies on consumer action to separate those materials correctly – most of which will need further separation at a dedicated recycling facility. Many products are shipped in packaging that is technically, say, 70% recyclable, but if the non-recyclable parts aren’t separated from the recyclable parts at some point in the chain then it can render a whole load unusable; a bag of recycling becomes either economically or technologically unusable to process. This is not sustainable.

Both of these are problems. Because allowing 70% of plastic to be ‘virgin’ (freshly produced) skirts the issue that we should really be getting away from non-essential plastic in the first place. And that means moving to paper.

Using entirely paper-based solutions for all commercial packaging creates a much more environmentally friendly way to ship everything from food to electronics. Not just on paper, but quite literally on the ground.

Yes, there are energy and resource considerations to take when producing paper packaging, but these are significantly smaller than those of plastics – and at least when an item isn’t recycled through the proper channels, it can harmlessly biodegrade.

So what else is set to happen in the packaging industry in 2021?

Glass & aluminium may make a comeback

Paper makes the most sense to use for packaging single-use packages but, for things such as beverages, we may be seeing glass and aluminium become the green standards. 

That’s because glass and aluminium are able to be recycled endlessly with no loss of quality – crucially, through the implementation of pay-to-return schemes, customers can be incentivised to actually return glass, aluminium, and even plastic bottles and cans.

This is something that’s been a staple of resource cycles in different European countries for quite a few years now – and is set to close the loop on many product cycles within the UK. To-your-door milkmen and women have been operating a glass bottle return scheme for years – so it’s clearly proof of concept, imagine the same thing on a national scale with a range of different materials.

Robust waste collection systems mean that producers can rely on the long term cost savings of switching to glass bottles – being able to regain a significant portion of the bottles sent out outweighs the initial cost of producing in glass. Regardless, collection schemes would certainly help stop a great deal of plastics going to landfill.

Packaging for shipping set to get more granular

A significant source of waste and emissions is the unnecessary or inappropriate packaging used for deliveries. We’ve all had deliveries with huge cardboard boxes for a new 1-cup coffee press or other similarly-small item. These boxes are often more than twice the size of the item they pack.

Now, Amazon – as an example – have been good insofar as the shipping packaging is all paper now, but its reliance on standardised boxes creates a huge amount of waste. It’s a great step that they’re using primarily paper packaging, but the next step is to granularise that packaging so that it’s more effective. By having fewer totals of a greater number of sizes, the most effective box gets used for the right product. While the paper isn’t going to contribute to long-lasting waste, it still takes resources and energy to create that paper in the first place, so reducing how much is used unnecessarily helps a great deal with overall emissions.

This may, however, be more difficult than it may seem. More variation means more production lines, means higher production costs, means more labour time sorting, finding, and packing. But that’s when operating on a model that is fast becoming outdated.

The advancement of CNC machines means that complex patterns can be cut out in a matter of seconds for any sized box. As such, it’s not difficult to imagine a few CNC ‘printers’ printing out boxes for specific orders as those orders come in. 

Even more advanced is Amazon’s new packaging system, steadily rolling out in select warehouses. It 3D-scans objects on a conveyor belt, then makes a custom 

box for each item at a surprisingly fast rate – up to 700 boxes per hour. This high level of customisation means that fewer members staff are needed to manually package orders, which frees them up to do more productive tasks in the warehouse. More importantly, it equates to significant savings in wasted paper and materials.

It takes some time to set up but, once ready, these technologies dramatically reduce the amount of wasted packaging paper. Eventually, these types of technology will also reduce all types of packaging waste.

Sustainable environmental packaging for Cacharel
Design is set to take centre stage

With a growing use of paper packaging, design is set to take centre stage – eye-catching & innovative packaging design will be much easier to print and assemble so creative freedom will enable much more colourful shelves.

We’ve seen an increase in niche packaging designs recently with things such as meat alternatives such as Naturli openly advertising how recycled their packaging is as well as other environmental & ethical concerns. Or otherwise, brands such as Beyond Meat have taken to bold packaging aesthetics. At first, these trends had been partly necessary for alternative products in order to help justify their slightly higher price points – but these have since blossomed into genuine selling points (think Oatly’s cute, to-the-point carton copywriting).

The actual design of packaging has always been hugely important to products, that goes without saying, but the transition to primarily paper-based packaging means we’re likely to see lots of very thoughtful, beautiful printed designs.

We’re excited for the packaging revolution, and we’re proud to be part of it.

If you need any advice with your packaging, we’re always on hand to help, get in touch.

19 April 2021

BACK | NEXT