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Man with pencil sketching a variety of sustainable packaging designs.

11 Packaging Innovations Changing The Way We Eat, Drink, and Live

The world is producing record amounts of packaging waste. These innovative companies are making consumer goods more sustainable.

Ryan Deer | January 27, 2021


When plastic was invented, milk was still in glass bottles, meat was packaged in paper (not cellophane), and the concept of restaurant takeout didn’t exist. Moreover, a century ago, no one could have imagined a company called Amazon would have a same-day delivery map that looked like Hungry Hungry Hippos. Now, we’re drowning in packaging.

The Mountain We Climb

According to the EPA, cardboard, glass, aluminum, and plastic containers and packaging made up 28.1 percent of total municipal solid waste (MSW) from Americans in 2018, or 82.2 million tons. Put differently, that’s enough to fill AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, 384 and a half times.

Thanks to plastic and styrofoam—today’s most common packaging materials—that number grows steadily year over year. Estimates vary, but this year, humans will produce between 350 and 380 million tons of plastic, 50 percent of which is used for single-use purposes and ends up in the trash.

Who’s to blame? Producers, consumers—all of us. However, the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR) has gained traction, where companies assume a responsibility for their product all the way through its lifecycle, even after consumers discard it.

[More from RoadRunner’s Waste Watcher’s blog: What is Extended Producer Responsibility?]

Unfortunately, corporations must balance their pledge to sustainability with accountability for the bottom line. You’re likely asking: In a numbers game, why would a business pay more to use something eco-friendly?

A heavy conscience and government regulation may play a part, but as their customer bases are starting to wake up to the trash mountains and garbage patches creeping closer to home, companies are increasingly driven to act. 

In a McKinsey study examining attitudes toward sustainable packaging, 55 percent expressed extreme concern about the environmental impact of packaging, and “60 to 70 percent of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable packaging.” 

This problem didn’t exactly sneak up on the world, and while most businesses are just beginning to plot their pivot, early-adopters of EPR are innovating, preventing waste at the source through sustainable packaging design and cleaner, leaner supply-side economics.

Get to know the companies ushering in a new era of how we consume.

Whisky in Wood and a Mac & Cheese Makeover

Think about your typical trip to the grocery store, and possibly a detour to the liquor store as well. What’s in the bags? They’re likely filled with plastics, cellophane, styrofoam, cardboard, and glass, much of which isn’t even recyclable. But armed with foresight and massive R&D investments, a few companies are changing what it means to eat and drink responsibly.

      • Diageo, the largest distiller in the world, entered into a consortium with beverage giant PepsiCo to develop a 100% plastic-free bottle made from sustainably sourced wood pulp. The food-safe paper bottle will be fully recyclable in standard waste streams and will debut in Johnnie Walker scotch whisky and non-alcoholic PepsiCo beverages in 2021.
      • Kraft Heinz is launching a microwavable paperboard cup for its Kraft Macaroni & Cheese product, the brand’s first recyclable bowl.
      • Nestlé developed a recyclable paper wrapper for its YES! snack bars.

Disrupting Dining

Takeout container. Doggie bag. Whatever you call them, these plastic and styrofoam boxes (or cardboard ones with plastic liners) are the expected vessel for your restaurant leftovers. Before COVID, eateries were trending positively and exploring sustainable options for their food. However, affected by the pandemic, classically trained chefs began competing with pizzerias, shifting the focus from the environmental impact to the integrity of the food.

But why choose between the two? As the pandemic threatens to “undo progress” on global plastic pollution, these companies are the new tastemakers.

      • VerTerra, a company supplying chefs and restaurants around the globe, makes compostable dinnerware, cutlery, and takeout containers from fallen palm leaves and balsa tree stumps.
      • Washington D.C. restaurant Oyster Oyster adopted takeout containers crafted from sugarcane pulp.
      • Notpla has solved the leak issue with cardboard, compostable containers with a seaweed-based liner, as well as creating edible seaweed-based condiment pouches.
      • McDonald’s locations in Latin America and the Caribbean are using trays made from food waste like fruit peels and chicken bones. Pretty forward-thinking for a global franchise that has hosted a plastic ball pit at its indoor playgrounds since the late ’80s.
      • Third-party delivery partners Dispatch Goods, DeliverZero, and a wave of others provide reusable dishes, bowls, and utensils upon order, then collect, sanitize, and reintroduce the items.

Home Goods Clean It Up

Unlike a little spilled milk from the carton, home goods are not something you can afford to have leak, seep, or crumble. Plastic’s durability is a double-edged sword, with many plastic bottles and tubes taking up to 450 years to decompose. That’s why some consumer goods companies are following a familiar playbook: reduce, reuse, recycle.

    • Hello Bello reduced its use of traditional polyethylene plastic by 50% in its laundry detergent containers; the other half of the bottle is made up of sugarcane resin.
    • A Good Company, an e-commerce brand selling only sustainable items, ships goods in 100% recyclable packages made from stone paper, without any tape.
    • Colgate launched its long-awaited fully recyclable toothpaste tube, the first of its kind. It’s made from the same plastic as milk jugs.
    • Unilever, who boasts “2.5 billion people use our products every day,” is part of the same consortium as Diageo and PepsiCo and will test the design for personal care products in 2021.

Manufacturing Leans In

Sweeping innovations often don’t extend to the manufacturing and assembly sector. Here, complex processes can yield some uncommon waste. But if there’s one thing factories share in common, it’s that they all produce a lot of it—the average U.S. factory produces 7.6 billion tons of waste per year.

Companies looking to counter their unique sustainability issues must do so with determination, and a fair amount of creativity.

      • Avery Dennison, a global materials sciences company known for its labels, adhesives, and packaging, created a wine label using 15% grape waste from the winemaking process, while the other 85% consists of Forest Stewardship Council-approved paper. 

Far from a one-off, Avery Dennison’s ClearIntent Portfolio consists of hundreds of products purposely designed to assist customers and end-users reduce materials consumption, shrink carbon footprints, and make goods like plastic bottles and clothing more recyclable.

As the company’s strategic partner, RoadRunner is implementing a customized pilot program for the label-making giant dedicated to keeping the hard-to-recycle byproducts out of landfills. 

With all of these advancements in packaging considered—no matter if it’s what we order to eat or what arrives on our doorstep—we’re likely centuries away from the reality of a 100% sustainable circular economy. Until then, you’ll continue to see revolutionary innovations as well as the eco-conscious champions who push their industries forward. 

Plus, connecting all the pieces, you’ll have RoadRunner diverting, optimizing, and educating en route to a zero-waste future.



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