(Photo Credit: Pixabay)
Packaging has long been a wasteful and landfill-clogging part of business. And with the ongoing pandemic comes a rise in e-commerce, and thus, a rise in packaging being used and discarded. Many companies are working to find a way to package their goods in a sustainable manner. Recently, we caught up with David Murgio, Chief Sustainability Officer with Ranpak, to learn his thoughts on the future of sustainable packaging.
There has been a surge in e-commerce lately, with Deloitte forecasting that e-commerce sales will grow 25-35% year-over-year during the 2020-2021 holiday season. How has this impacted the sustainable packaging industry, if at all?
Before the pandemic hit, retail e-commerce sales in the US were already growing steadily and expected to reach 12.4% in 2020. Now, in the current and post-COVID environment, global e-commerce sales as a share of total retail sales is expected to be even higher, as consumers increasingly look to purchase products online. In total, e-commerce holiday sales are expected to generate between $182 and $196 billion this year. All in all, the long-term organic growth trajectory of e-commerce — combined with the shorter-term acceleration due to COVID — means that increased plastic packaging waste is an unfortunate inevitability of our times, unless industry can adopt cost-effective sustainable packaging solutions.
The upshot here is that we are experiencing a surge in demand for sustainable packaging solutions. Our packaging systems use paper to protect goods for shipment — not plastics or foam — that is renewable, biodegradable, and curbside recyclable. Last year, in 2019, we produced over 120,000 metric tons of paper packaging material. Most of this paper will be recycled and whatever is not recycled will naturally biodegrade. That’s 120,000 metric tons of packaging material that was not plastic. So, 120,000 metric tons of packaging material that won’t choke our waterways or outlive our grandchildren.
More and more industries are turning to automation. How do you see automation affecting or helping the packaging industry?
We believe automation will be key in times of increased demand. Companies are increasingly looking for speed, efficiency, and accuracy. In our view, automation enhances labor; it need not replace it. Automation tools can help our end-users analyze and improve their consumables costs, reduce waste, quickly adjust for seasonal volume peaks, and optimize their freight costs and usage. Automation can also ultimately reduce the need for excess warehouse space and help companies do more with less, creating a better environment for workers and a better bottom line.
Moreover, automation is an important part of the sustainability calculus. For example, our automated box-sizing equipment fits the box to the size of the product being shipped. This reduces the need for in-the-box packaging material. Less packaging material — even if paper — means less waste, lighter packages, lower greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a win-win for our customers and for the environment.
Numerous reports have pointed to the fact that demand for sustainability is increasing. How can packaging companies meet this growing demand across all industries?
Paper packaging is one of the most flexible, scalable, and sustainable products to incorporate across industries, whether we’re talking about consumer products, food, automotive, beauty, or more. For example, paper’s insulation value is highly competitive and offers substantial insulating power, which yields a wide range of benefits across many different cold-chain applications. In other words, paper can protect and insulate groceries, meat, meals, and other food ingredients for shipping and delivery. We’ve also developed a new line of paper packaging material — which we call GreenLine — that is predominantly sourced from post-consumer, mixed paper waste. As you probably know, mixed paper is the lowest grade of paper waste and often ends up in landfills because it is difficult to recycle. But after a lot of work with one of our key suppliers, we’ve found a way to take that mixed paper waste and convert it into packaging material that protects goods for shipping by replacing plastic bubble, packing peanuts, foam sheets, or air pillows.
How is Ranpak reducing plastic secondary packaging waste?
While primary packaging holds the product itself — think the pretty box on the shelf in a big box store — secondary packaging is the material that goes in the shipping box to protect the product for delivery to the consumer. Historically, secondary packaging has been an afterthought, but as retailers begin to examine their entire supply chains to reduce their reliance on less-sustainable materials, secondary packaging is becoming increasingly important.
Ranpak’s entire business is focused on replacing secondary packaging material — the plastic wraps, the air pillows, the packing peanuts and foams — with paper. Renewable, biodegradable, and curbside recyclable paper.
Our commitment to sustainability, however, also extends beyond our products to our operations. We use recycled paper wherever possible and recycle the vast majority of our own manufacturing waste stream. We also seek to minimize our reliance on fossil fuel energy and build high quality packaging systems that last. In other words, Ranpak aims not only enable our customers to conduct their businesses more sustainably, but also to conduct our own business as sustainably as possible, each and every day.
In regard to this upcoming holiday season — and future ones, for that matter — what can the packaging industry do still meet client demand, but to do so sustainably?
An increase in demand does not need to be at odds with sustainability. Increased economic activity is good. It means more jobs and greater opportunity for innovation. The key is for all players — whether they be manufacturers, retailers, or consumers — to conduct themselves as sustainably as possible. We do that by minimizing our waste generation and maximizing our use of truly recyclable and renewable goods and materials. In the world of secondary packaging, that means paper.
Think about it. The useful life of secondary packaging is just a few days — the time it takes from when you click “purchase” to when a box arrives at your doorstep. Why on earth should we, as a society, be so reliant on plastic, which performs a function that’s complete in just a few days, then occupies our landfills or pollutes our environment for hundreds of years to come? The answer is, we shouldn’t.