For companies with sustainable packaging goals, 2025 is fast approaching. That’s the year when many have pledged to become zero waste, or to use 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging. But COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in those plans, with single-use packaging skyrocketing, low fossil fuel prices and disrupted recycling systems, already weakened by China’s 2018 plastics waste ban.
Yet, at the same time, the pandemic has led to a surge in environmental and sustainability awareness by showing how much carbon emissions can drop, or wildlife can flourish, when the world’s economic engine slows down.
As TerraCycle founder and CEO, Tom Szaky, put it, “The world is waking up, but the systems that are there that allow them to act are going the other way. There’s this divergence, which is a great opportunity for anyone who can bridge the gap.”
Bridging that gap with novel solutions and collaborations, in a race against the clock, is one of five key themes to keep an eye on for sustainable packaging in 2021.
1. A year for reckoning — and opportunity
In September, Waste Management published a report identifying gaps in the plastics recycling system, in response to shareholder pressure from As You Sow and Trillium Asset Management. The report provided a bit of a roadmap for 2021, according to Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and executive director of GreenBlue. It was critical for helping stakeholders understand the system, the supply chain, and the role that emerging tech will play, and it “provided the environment for everyone to buckle down and say, ‘Uh-oh, how are we going to do this?’” she said. That is, how will stakeholders meet their recycling goals?
Noting, for example, that the report revealed that only 30 percent of PET is collected, and most of that goes into fiber, Goodrich queried, “How does one create a system where there’s 100 percent recycled content and recyclability when you have more than one market demanding that material?” Clearly, stakeholders will have to get out of their silos and collaborate across sectors.
Although it’s a challenging time, with companies’ 2025 sustainable packaging goals coming due and the recycling market in disarray, Szaky said he believes that 2021 will be an interesting year: “We’re going to see a lot of people leaning in on these topics in a way they haven’t before.”
For Loop, the reusable packaging platform that allows consumers to buy goods in durable packaging and return it to producers after use, that means opportunity. “It’s a pretty exciting time for us,” Szaky told GreenBiz. “We’re booming.”
2. Reuse models will continue to grow
Loop is fast growing, raising $25 million last year. It’s moving into quick service restaurants including Burger King, McDonald’s and Tim Hortons in 2021. “The big theme for next year is retailers are starting to do in-store quite aggressively,” said Szaky. Carrefour already has begun in France. Many of the other 15 retailers that Loop works with are starting store rollouts in six countries in 2021, according to Szaky.