Sustainable packaging: How brands are innovating with plastic and alternatives

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As companies outline their sustainability goals, many brands are coming up with innovative alternatives to regular plastic for their product packaging.

“It said ‘sweet’ on the packaging. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

While Don Draper may have been talking about his troubled childhood in Mad Men, the show proved that in the advertising world, the importance of packaging is paramount.

That was the 60s. Today, covering a product in an interactive wrapper that draws a passerby’s attention and makes them want to have another look — let alone purchase it — is nothing short of an art.

“The packaging is the first impression a lot of people have in front of a new product,” says Bernat Añaños, co-founder of plant-based meat company Heura Foods. “You can understand a lot of things when looking at a packaging: materials, colours and the hierarchy of the messages.”

Now, as more and more companies pledge their sustainability commitments — like Nespresso, PepsiCo and Alpro have done in the last week — eco-conscious brands are expanding that shift to their product packaging as well.

40% of the world’s plastic comes from packaging, which is used just once and then discarded. Within the UK, only a third of plastic packaging is recycled, the rest being taken to landfill or incinerated. That means less than half of all recyclable plastic is actually recycled, and not recycling it costs the UK £78 million every year.

Switching to sustainable packaging seems to be a no-brainer. Just this month, Naked (a subsidiary of PepsiCo) became the only smoothie and juice brand to offer its smoothies in 100% recycled plastic bottles. Why did it make the switch?

The move comes as part of our vision to help build a world where plastics need never become waste,” says Charlotte Ashburner, senior marketing manager for Naked Smoothies. This echoes the brand’s message of its new bottles being made entirely from rubbish — plastic that’s been disposed of and recycled. That material — recycled polyethylene terephthalate (or rPET) — can itself be recycled.

Añaños, whose company reduced its plastic use by 80% by switching to a 100% recycled cardboard tray, notes that, as environmental concerns increasingly affect the decisions consumers make, packaging is no exception, “as they are looking to reduce their footprint at all levels”. By switching to cardboard in Heura’s packaging, he says: “We have space to explain why we exist and the impact traditional meat has in everything we love.”

Ashburner agrees that climate change has been a major factor behind consumer behaviour towards sustainable packaging: “Research has found that consumers are looking for ways to make a positive difference by supporting brands that address causes they care about and that they remain mindful of the impact of plastic usage on the environment.”

But she adds that it’s not just the customer that is pushing for change; it’s a call for arms to manufacturers “to take the lead in launching greener initiatives, such as reducing their use of new plastic”.

Corey Nobile and Nick Oliveri, whose superfood company Impact Snacks developed edible, plant-based packaging, highlight how the positive response they received from consumers only went on to show “how much they feel it is needed for other companies to adopt” too.

But creating sustainable packaging for products presents its challenges. Nobile and Oliveri recall how it was tough to find manufacturers willing to test their idea, which was unheard of: “We had many roadblocks, including many hours of testing, finding the right machinery, as well as navigating the oil and moisture content from the bars so the barrier wouldn’t decompose with our whole foods snack ingredients.”

Price is a major barrier too. “We pay 1000% more for our home-compostable, bio-based plastics than other big food corporations pay for their basic plastic packaging,” the Impact Snacks co-founders tell me. “This is with the intent to pioneer this material and other biobased alternatives to make it cheaper and easier for other businesses to adopt this material. This will help us fight the global plastic pollution crisis head-on.”

But even a larger company like Naked encountered its own obstacles. “We have done lots of research and development to understand how we could successfully make our bottles part of the circular economy,” says Ashburner.

“One of the key challenges we faced was making a bottle that was as close as possible in colour to the virgin plastic one. Indeed, recycled plastic is typically more grey than virgin plastic. This is particularly tricky for a smoothie brand as it can make the product look less vibrant in colour to our consumers,” she adds.

Añaños notes the overarching issue for plastic-free packaging: “The amount of options on the market is still limited and pricey, and some are already doubtful regarding food security. Hopefully, as demand increases, options will also increase and prices decrease.”

And while sustainable packaging is more expensive than using regular plastic, the Heura co-founder says it’s worth it: “If we were here just for economic reasons, anyone would have voted for this switch. But we are looking at the long run, for us and the planet, so we decided it is a good investment that exemplifies our commitment in a more sustainable food system throughout all the steps.”

As consumers become more receptive and responsive to the climate crisis, Nobile and Oliver believe the world isn’t getting there soon enough. “We need solutions that can work in everyday purchases and situations,” they tell me. “People are looking at what products are packaged in as one of the ways they can limit pollution.”

Anay Mridul
Anay Mridul
Anay is journalism graduate from City, University of London, he was a barista for three years, and never shuts up about coffee. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford Comma. Originally from India, he went vegan in 2020, after attempting (and failing) Veganuary. He believes being environmentally conscious is a basic responsibility, and veganism is the best thing you can do to battle climate change. He gets lost at Whole Foods sometimes.