Sustainable packaging covers any materials or packing processes which attempt to prevent the increase of waste products destined for landfill sites. Sustainability involves the use of eco friendly materials used in recyclable packaging or biodegradable packaging which will break down and return to nature once no longer required.

Businesses of all kinds and sizes – Coca-Cola, Unilever, McDonalds and Danone among them – are committing to sustainability targets, and not just as a ‘greenwashing’ public relations exercise. There is now a realisation that in spite of short-term increases in costs, a commitment to greener working can be a way of building sustainable profits.

The UK government has also made substantial commitments to the environment, targeting a range of issues including air pollution, clean water, waste, harmful chemicals and biosecurity. The UK are also hosts of the United Nation’s Climate Summit 2020 in Glasgow. 


Eco friendly packaging is a front-of-mind topic for companies operating in all sectors. Growing public concern has recently been ramped up by the scenarios shown in Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet TV series, as well as by a timely realisation by businesses and politicians that, if nothing changes, packaging will cause irreversible environmental damage.

An estimated 80 million tonnes of plastic packaging are produced annually. That’s around 10 kilos of plastic for every person on the planet, every year. If left unchecked the figure will triple by 2050 (source: Talking Retail). Forbes.mag reports that there were 3.4 trillion units of packaging produced in 2016, 92% of it for food and drink.

Environmentally friendly packaging is agreed as a top priority by virtually everyone – the way we package goods of all kinds has to change. Leaving aside the Attenborough effect, the issue has come closer to home with China and other nations in the Far East now refusing to accept plastics for low-cost recycling. The opportunities to shift the burden of environmental responsibility elsewhere are reducing. 

What packaging is sustainable?

One of the biggest initiatives in sustainable packaging is to swap single use plastic (SUP) for:

  • Paper 
  • Cardboard
  • Reuseable plastic
  • Biodegradable plastic and bio plastic made partly from plant products

There are also refinements in approach which can have a positive impact:

  • Simply reducing the amount of packaging
  • Packing and wrapping with a close fit to the product to minimise the amount of material used snugly
  • Increasing the fill rate in cartons and other containers 
  • Using monomaterials instead of laminates

A few examples of successful approaches are:

  • Newspaper egg cartons
  • Lightweight card snack boxes
  • Reusable coffee cups
  • Slim cardboard sleeves for t-shirts
  • Ground coffee and beans in paper bags
  • Bubble-wrap made from recycled polythene

There is also the huge importance of innovation and experimentation – of thinking (literally) outside the box.


The packaging industry is moving ahead on a number of fronts to improve the green credentials of many types of business.


Energy-efficient packaging machines are an important element of the sustainable packaging movement. Machines which use less electricity and water in the packaging process go a long way to reducing a company’s impact on the environment. Ideally, packaging should be manufactured using renewable energy and clean production technologies without the use of toxic substances.


Sustainable packaging materials offer the same functional aspects as regular packaging materials. They need to protect the product, and to facilitate handling, storage and transport while at the same time avoiding any environmental impact.

Traditionally, sustainable packaging was used to refer to biodegradable packaging or even compostable packaging options. However, sustainable packaging can also apply to other options including recycling and reuse, as well as flexible packaging. 


With consumer interest in organic foods and farming riding high, some companies are now going the extra mile and offering these foods in more environment-friendly packaging. Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer, for example, have decided to start selling some of their fresh organic produce and a selection of ready meals in maize-based compostable packaging in the future. 

Biodegradable coffee cups have also been trialled by major players on the High Street.

Many companies in the food packaging industry are now switching on to the idea of biodegradable materials and even compostable packaging. Biodegradable packaging is required to break down when disposed of, but there is no stipulation as to the amount time in which this must happen. Compostable packaging on the other hand, must disintegrate into natural elements in a compost environment, leaving no toxicity in the soil within ninety days.


At the heart of the sustainability debate is the circular economy. In its purest form, in packaging terms, it means returning packaging for it to be reused for its original purpose. 

In January 2019 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Loop shopping was unveiled. With the participation of major players such as Nestlé, Unilever and Proctor and Gamble, the Loop initiative utilises sturdy, refillable packaging that can be used many times over. The approach is making headway in cosmetics, personal care, food and retail. The idea of reusing packaging not so new – think back to milkmen picking up empty bottles to be cleaned and reused. But its time has certainly come again. 

Major supermarkets are also trialling refillables and plastic-free aisles, and zero-waste stores like The Clean Kilo in the UK and Precycle in New York have come into being. Individual consumers are making lifestyle choices about how they shop without endangering the future of the planet. As one Precycle customer puts it, “Just having very little trash feels really good.”    


Flexible packaging utilises bags and pouches, or any other non-rigid packaging structures. By combining the best qualities of paper, aluminium, plastic and film, flexible packaging uses fewer raw materials while still providing reliable protection for food products. Flexible packaging is a particularly effective means of extending shelf life. Not only does it provide effective packaging at point of sale but also provides customers with a convenient resealable package to use later, removing the need for other containers or disposable bags to preserve the remaining food.

Flexible packaging offers a variety of packaging options to suit all varieties of products and even brings the added advantage of being extremely easy to print on it and enhance company branding.

Though not necessarily biodegradable, flexible packaging contributes to the reduction of waste destined to find its way to landfill sites due to its non-rigid and therefore easily foldable structure. Lighter weight packaging requires less energy to transport and deliver, saving both money and reducing the carbon footprint of the vehicles required to transport it

Thanks to advances and innovations in food packaging, flexible packaging now requires fewer resources. Modern techniques mean flexible packaging solutions require less water and energy to produce, and the process also produces less greenhouse gas emissions and volatile organic compounds.


Successful eco-design uses environmentally friendly materials applied to present day and future problems. For sustainable packaging that means a focus on sourcing and recovery of materials, as well as designing for solutions which can be used at a significant commercial scale. 

New award-winning ideas include:

  • protective sleeves for fragile products made from recycled paper in an expandable honeycomb design to replace plastic bubble wrap 
  • protective foam made from paper and plant starch which also provide thermal insulation
  • compostable packaging foam made from seafood shells and waste from paper recycling, an alternative to expanded polystyrene
  • reusable delivery packaging made from recycled PET bottles   
  • compostable packaging which uses mushrooms to bind wood chip

The drive for sustainability now runs through all parts of the commercial world which uses packaging. There is growing evidence that a sustainable approach drives profitability as well as delivering on environmental goals. Statutory regulation and government targets are also driving change in the packaging industry, together with growing demands for a greener economy from an increasing number of consumers.  

Looking ahead to a greener future

The adoption of sustainable materials and packaging practices is set to increase inexorably. There’s plenty to be done including understanding public attitudes to sustainability, and the development of recycling resources. There needs to be greater clarity on which materials are recyclable and reusable. 

We can expect to see significant developments in paper, card and sustainable plastics (bioplastics), and a growing recycling infrastructure. Allied with a move away from fossil fuels for transport and power, and the rise of highly-efficient, technology-driven processing and packaging machinery, the possibilities for a greener future are growing all the time. 


PPMA Total Show 2021

Sustainability was high on the agenda at our last event, PPMA Total Show 2019, with a Keynote Address On a Mission to Make Sustainability the New Normal from Joanna Yarrow, Head of Sustainable and Healthy Living at Ikea Group. The 2021 show will be picking up where last year’s show left off. Be sure to attend and stay informed about the latest developments in sustainable packaging.

The PPMA Show 2021 will be held at NEC Birmingham, UK from 28 to 30 September 2021.