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How E-Commerce Can Push the Sustainable Packaging Trend

When people buy online, they're less focused on flashy packaging and more interested in the quality of a product — and that's good news for packaging manufacturers, brands and municipal recyclers looking to cut waste down to size.
By 3p Editors

The rise of e-commerce has also given rise to enormous piles of discarded shipping boxes and packaging materials that sit at the curbside as monuments of waste. At the same time, the e-commerce trend also provides brands with new opportunities to adopt circular strategies that attract a new generation of environmentally conscious consumers. If consumer sentiment is not motivation enough, emerging trends in government policy should spur brands to reduce waste and act ahead of new waste management regulations, instead of reacting to them.

A circular economy lesson for the U.S., from Canada

Brands that do business in the U.S. market can look to Canada for a glimpse into the future. Over the past years, multiple Canadian provinces have been transitioning into the extended producer responsibility (EPR) model, in which manufacturers and suppliers are held accountable for the impacts of their products all through their lifecycle, including their fate beyond consumer use.

Unlike jurisdictions in the U.S., Canadian provinces such as Quebec require suppliers of cardboard boxes and other recyclable materials to either compensate municipalities for the cost of curbside recycling service (Québec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan) or ensure the service, including sorting and recycling activities, on their own (Ontario and British Columbia). 

Offsetting the cost of recycling would be a significant change in the U.S. all on its own, but the Quebec model doesn’t stop there.

Last winter Quebec’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Benoit Charette, announced the province's next big step into the extended producer responsibility field. The new regulations will require companies that supply containers, packaging, and printed paper in Quebec to take direct responsibility for making sure they are collected, sorted, and recycled, rather than simply fronting the cost.

Bringing recycling full circle

Under the new regulations, producers and suppliers will have to ensure that recycling operations are available and compatible with their products. They will also have to help build reliable markets for recycled materials.

The new regulations are expected to go into full effect by 2025. Many producers are not waiting for the new obligations to kick in and have already begun to coordinate strategies with recyclers. 

That includes the sustainable fiber and paper company Sustana, who has been partnering with producers to help ensure that recycling operations can accommodate new types of paper cups and other products that are expected to hit the market in increasing numbers as the plastic ban trend gathers steam.

Leveraging e-commerce for sustainable packaging

Geneviève Dionne is an industrial design expert in ecodesign and packaging with Éco Entreprises Québec, the private nonprofit organization created by suppliers of containers, packaging, and printed paper in Québec to handle their financial responsibility in municipal curbside recycling services. She emphasizes that brands can leverage e-commerce to work within the new regulations.

“Those who use packaging to market goods must now manage it and make sure it gets recycled,” Dionne told TriplePundit. “The industry has to prove that packaging is compatible with the curbside system and is recyclable in practice, not just in theory.”

The e-commerce difference is simple yet significant: With online shopping, brands no longer have to produce high volumes of eye-catching shelf packaging to attract consumers. That is an advantage for companies facing new recycling regulations, such as those in Quebec. “Packaging is part of our purchasing process decisions: When you buy online, you pay less attention to packaging and more to the product, so there is more attention to basic and neutral packaging for delivery,” Dionne added.

Still, there has been a learning curve. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Dionne and her team at Éco Entreprises Québec saw a great deal of “over-packaging” as companies delivered goods in the same packaging designed for store shelves or in oversized boxes. More recently, companies are beginning to dial down their packaging to fit the e-commerce delivery model, Dionne said. She also noted that the Canadian postal services are beginning to test reusable packaging, leading to the possibility that companies could share and reuse delivery envelopes and boxes.

Collaborating to cut non-recyclable materials 

Reducing the need for elaborate, shelf-style packaging is a hidden benefit of e-commerce, but it could be outweighed by the continued use of non-recyclable materials in delivery containers and interior padding.

Sustana has been working with Éco Entreprises Québec and other partners to minimize the use of non-recyclables and focus on fiber content, Emily Olson, director and sustainability ambassador at Sustana, told 3p. “Fiber packaging is the most recycled type in the waste stream,” she explained. “In the U.S., over 66 percent of paper and paperboard products are recycled, in contrast with less than 5 percent of plastic, so this is an exciting opportunity to reclaim and recycle packaging into new products.”

She is optimistic about the opportunities for agencies, consumers, and companies to collaborate on e-commerce packaging that moves the circular economy forward. “The COVID-19 pandemic has given consumers and companies the opportunity to hit pause and really look at our consumption,” Olson said. “We are absolutely seeing a reduction in the volume of packaging. We are also seeing more ‘smart design’ systems that use fewer resources to get the same performance.”

How e-commerce can open the door to circularity

As Olson sees it, the increased dependence on delivery packaging has made brands more aware of the opportunities to attract consumers through the use of recycled fiber. “I’ve been excited about seeing so many brands — from the Fortune 500 to small startups — make greener packaging commitments,” she said. “They’re increasing recycled content, ensuring that their packaging is recyclable, and expanding reusable packaging options.”  

It’s also possible that consumers accustomed to more sustainable e-commerce packaging will begin to shift the sustainability needle on in-store packaging, too.

That could be a particular challenge in the area of food packaging, but the market appears to be poised for transformation. In fact, food retailers have been introducing their own iterations of the 1970s-era “Generic Brand” trend in recent years. Some leading food brands also have a long history with recycled fiber in food packaging — notably Kellogg Co., which has been using recycled fiber in cereal boxes since 1906. 

Until recently the sticking point has been packaging that comes into direct contact with food. In the U.S., those materials need to be compliant with Food and Drug Administration standards, which previously provided a challenge to adding recycled fiber into food packaging.

That, too, is changing. The pressure on companies to use more recycled content has also created an incentive for paper recyclers to innovate and invest in new technology that enables more widespread use of recycled fiber.

In 2018, for example, Sustana became the first recycler in North America to achieve FDA compliance for direct food contact, under the proprietary name EnviroLife. In addition to packaged foods and beverages, EnviroLife is a game changer for brands and companies in the area of takeout foods and beverages. That includes meal kits, another field that has seen growth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within the e-commerce framework, these trends are converging to build a new model for consumerism that relies more on the Internet for visual attraction, and less on extracting virgin natural resources from the Earth. The pieces are all in place, and now it is up to brand leaders to seize the opportunity — before policymakers force the issue.

This article series is sponsored by Sustana and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image credit: Sustana

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TriplePundit editors offer news and insights on sustainable business.

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