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The 6 Sustainable Packaging Trends We’ll Be Watching in 2022

Claudia Baldwin

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Last year was a reckoning for companies racing the clock to meet their 2025 sustainable packaging goals. In the U.S., states passed groundbreaking legislation to help repair the broken recycling system and to move companies faster on their commitments.

As David Allaway, a senior analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), told GreenBiz, “It’s time to acknowledge that that we have waste problem. The recycling system is not delivering the environmental benefits it’s capable of, and in some cases is actually causing environmental harm — and all of these problems can be fixed with a shared responsibility approach.”

2021 also saw progress, even as the coronavirus continued disrupting supply chains and the recycling industry. The use of virgin plastic in packaging peaked after decades of growth among signatories to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) Global Commitment. Reuse and refill approaches continue to grow, albeit slowly.

Will that momentum continue in 2022? Here are some trends to keep an eye on:

1. Extended producer responsibility

Long established in Canada and Europe, extended producer responsibility (EPR) finally reached the U.S. in 2021. Oregon and Maine passed laws requiring manufacturers to help fund the collection and processing of packaging, while other states such as New York, Washington and California came close.

We are buying products because we are being fooled by the labels to think that they are recyclable, biodegradable…

Maine and Oregon take different approaches, but both laws require companies that sell packaged goods in their states to join a producer responsibility organization (PRO), pay membership fees and report the quantity and types of packaged products they sell. Oregon’s law additionally requires the 25 largest producers to periodically evaluate and disclose the lifecycle environmental impacts of a fraction of their portfolio. Maine’s law goes into effect in mid-2024; Oregon’s follows in mid-2025.

Both states cover packaging material regardless of whether it’s recyclable. “That’s really important because it’s the non-recyclable stuff that’s creating some of the challenges for the recycling system,” said Allaway.

Oregon’s law will infuse badly needed cash, about $82 million a year, into the state’s recycling system, to help municipalities solve long-standing challenges. But as to whether it will incentivize companies to develop more environmentally friendly packaging, Allaway said, “There will be a price signal here, but we don’t think it’s going to be a very loud signal.”

California, New York, Vermont and Connecticut may move next in 2022. California legislators are “understanding just how far behind we really are, and they want to catch up,” said Heidi Sanborn, founding director of the National Stewardship Action Council and chair of California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling.

Meanwhile, globally, eight national governments in EMF’s Global Commitment set or are planning to implement EPR policies by 2025, including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Rwanda, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, France and Portugal, according to Lily Shepherd, program manager for the Global Commitment and strategic engagements in the New Plastics Economy at the foundation.

2. More laws to come like ‘Truth in Labeling’

California passed a groundbreaking Truth in Labeling for Recyclable Materials law last year. Similar legislation is being introduced in New Jersey, and Sanborn expects New York to follow suit.

“I think truth in labeling is the absolute crux of the issue as to contamination and the mess in our markets,” said Sanborn. “We are buying products because we are being fooled by the labels to think that they are recyclable, biodegradable…because there is no federal standard that has any sort of enforcement.”

Producers have two years to fix their labels in accordance with the new law, and what it defines as recyclable. California will audit what is coming into processing facilities and what is getting baled and shipped out.

Image via Unsplash/Sigmund

Other laws that may emerge in 2022 include recycled content mandates that establish minimum requirements for post-consumer recycled content in products, according to Terri Goldberg, executive director at the Northeast Waste Management Officials Association. New Jersey, for example, introduced a bill last year establishing recycled-content requirements for rigid plastic containers, glass containers, paper and plastic carryout bags, and plastic trash bags.

A national bottle bill is also being discussed as waste and recycling trade groups signal their support, Sanborn told GreenBiz.

3. Stepped up action to get toxics out of packaging

“The circular nature of the recycling economy may have the potential to introduce additional chemicals into products,” warned a recent EPA study after finding greater amounts of fragrances, flame retardants, solvents, biocides and dyes in products made from recycled materials.

Meanwhile, Washington, California and Maine joined the growing list of states passing legislation to ban or phase-out per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food packaging (and other products). Nationally, a bipartisan bill was introduced that would ban PFAS from food containers.

As more retailers such as McDonald’s announced PFAS bans, new tools are emerging to guide them in making safer packaging choices. The Center for Environmental Health and Clean Production Action released a GreenScreen Certified Standard for Food Service Ware, providing a safety standard for disposable plates, bowls and other foodware to ensure that they don’t contain PFAS or thousands of other toxic chemicals.

“This new standard can really help retailers, manufacturers and formulators ensure the safety of alternatives when transitioning away from PFAS, phthalates or other chemicals of high concern,” said Mike Schade, director of the Mind the Store campaign.

To further help companies understand good materials choices and avoid regrettable substitutions, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition launched a new Safe and Circular Materials Collaborative with ChemForward this year, Nina Goodrich, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and executive director of GreenBlue, told GreenBiz.

While PFAS have galvanized attention, they are the tip of the iceberg. Microplastics are emerging as another serious health concern, as they turn up everywhere, in our food, water and air — and even in the placenta of unborn babies. Consumer demands for safer packaging (and other consumer goods) will likely grow as scientists link these pollutants to harms from brain cancer to reduced fertility.

“There’s nothing about a circular economy that’s going to work if we continue to poison ourselves … over and over again,” Sanborn, noted bluntly.

4. A more holistic approach to packaging

Packaging stakeholders say they want to move the sustainable packaging conversation beyond more and better recycling, better single-use products, or the best material to use.

“The tragedy of what’s happening in this field is it’s all about recyclable to the exclusion of low impact,” noted Allaway. “It’s widely believed that if a package is recyclable or compostable, it is more sustainable.”

But that’s not always true. The Oregon DEQ evaluated the lifecycle assessment literature, comparing recyclable packaging to non-recyclable packaging and found that roughly half of the time, the recyclable package had lower lifecycle impacts than a non-recyclable package and about half the time the opposite was true. They got similar results comparing compostable to non-compostable packaging.

“If what we care about is the climate impacts of consumption, we need to look at [packaging] more holistically,” said Goldberg. The Understanding Packaging (UP) Scorecard, created by a new collaboration of food service companies and environmental NGOs called the Single-Use Material Decelerator will help on that front. The scorecard, currently in beta, is an online tool for evaluating the full suite of environmental and human health impacts of foodware and food packaging.

For Matt Prindiville, executive director at Upstream, a nonprofit focused on reuse and refill solutions, a more holistic approach means thinking about packaging not as a product, but as more of a service and designing reusable, refillable supply chains.

5. Slow, steady growth on reuse and refill

Reuse pioneers Algramo and Loop continued to expand in 2021. Algramo raised $8.5 million in a Series A round to help finance its expansion into Jakarta, New York, Mexico and London.

Carrefour, a French retailer, is one of nine companies partnering with Loop to offer an in-store version of its reusable container service. Courtesy of Loop.

Loop is also going strong, with in-store operations in the U.S., Canada, U.K., France and Japan. Its reusable container services are offered in top grocery stores in Japan, France and the U.K., and will be offered in Kroger, Walgreens and Burger King in the U.S. next year.

What’s more, in-store operations are scaling up, according to Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle. “At this point, our partners are not asking, do consumers care?” he said. “Now it’s about more stores and more products. It’s an exciting phase that we’re entering into.”

Refill strategies are advancing in the beer industry. In Ontario, for example, 85 percent of the beer sold is reuse refill. In the U.S., the Oregon Brewers Association has a refillable beer bottle program with the 12 largest microbreweries in Oregon, while Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle is introducing reusable beer cups.

Beyond those bright lights, however, progress is slow. Shepherd of EMF said that while the foundation saw a 50 percent increase in reuse pilots last year, the pilots are small-scale efforts in one or two markets, or one or two product lines. “It doesn’t look very ambitious,” she said. What’s more, the overall proportion of reusable packaging among Global Compact signatories remains extremely low, at less than 2 percent.

The biggest barrier “is a lack of vision,” said Prindiville. To accelerate progress, Upstream is releasing software next year that will enable food service companies to plug in the existing single use products that they’re procuring, get some baseline cost and environmental data on those products and compare them to reusable products.

Reuse and refill targets may be added into state EPR legislation to spur momentum, and the European Commission plans to unveil new reuse refill targets in April as part of its Circular Economy Action Plan, according to Prindiville. France already set a target to decrease single use plastic packaging by 20 percent by 2025, of which at least half must come from the reuse of packaging.

For Kate Daly, managing director at Closed Loop Partners, the reuse/refill future is all about interoperability, continued experimentation and collaboration. Closed Loop’s testing of four reusable cup systems across nine stores in California found a key concern is consumers encountering a different reuse system in each store they frequent.

Collective action among competitors is very much part of a strong future ahead of us.

Daly further noted, “There is no successful refill model without a very high recapture rate,” and that means continued work experimenting with programs that work for customers and retailers alike.

“Collective action among competitors is very much part of a strong future ahead of us,” she added. “[There’s also] the need for more transparency around data so that we can … all go in a direction that aligns with operational reality to retailers and preferences for customers.”

6. Accountability

2022 will be all about accountability, Goodrich of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition told GreenBiz. “I mean, we’re that much closer to 2025,” she noted, adding that Ubuntoo’s score card for benchmarking company progress on key metrics towards 2025 goals is a “brilliant” tool for facilitating action.

Szaky also wants to see the rubber hit the road. He said he’s observed only one company, Tesco, make the “painful” decision to stop selling certain packaging types with high impacts, even though it meant lost revenue.

“I still don’t see a fundamental shift away from the mantra of a corporate saying, ‘I will do sustainability actions if it benefits my bottom line right away,'” he said. “I haven’t seen [such] sacrifice-based sustainability decisions yet and those are the ones I’m watching for. That’s the magic that’s going to change our world.”

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Is Climate Tech the Hottest Corner of the VC Business in the 2020s?

Claudia Baldwin

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This is an excerpt from “Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street, and the Economic Battle to Save Our Planet” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

While government policies and leadership from Washington can help accelerate change, there’s another place that can accelerate change much faster: Silicon Valley.

In 2003, as a national technology reporter for a chain of newspapers, I visited the Mountain View, California campus of Google to meet with cofounder Sergey Brin. At the time, Google was still a private company, though there was widespread speculation that it would launch an initial public offering soon. The moment I pulled into the company parking lot, I got a taste that Google wasn’t a typical company. Covering many of the parking spaces were canopies made from solar panels, something that’s commonplace today but back then was pretty unusual. Even more unusual were the thick power cords hanging down from the panels over nearly every parking space, something that didn’t make sense until Brin and team later explained it to me. At the time, electric vehicles were even more uncommon than solar parking lot canopies (the first Tesla wouldn’t hit the streets for another five years). But Google knew EVs were coming someday soon, and it wanted to be ready. Google also wanted employees and other visitors to think about the possibilities that could come with solar-powered parking lots and cars that you could plug in to refuel.

Two of the forward-thinking people responsible for Google’s early solar deployment were Chris Sacca, who as the company’s corporate counsel and later head of special initiatives was involved in Google’s energy purchase agreements, and Andrew Beebe, who was chief commercial officer at solar company Suntech, which helped Google go solar.

“There really wasn’t any corporate interest until those guys stepped up and said, ‘Please build solar arrays all over our campus,'” Beebe recalled during a GreenBiz VERGE [climate] tech conference in October 2021. “But (Google executives) also said, ‘Set it up so we can have Walmart and Cisco and Microsoft and all of our competitors come over and see what we have done.’ They obviously had a hugely catalytic role in making all this happen.”

Both Beebe and Sacca would go on to become successful venture capitalists, Beebe with Obvious Ventures, the firm that helped launch companies such as Medium, Beyond Meat and electric bus maker Proterra, and Sacca with his firm called Lowercase Capital, which funded companies such as Twitter, Uber and Instagram. For about three years, Sacca also was a “guest shark” on the ABC television show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs bid for the favor — and the funding — of millionaire investors. But it didn’t take long before Sacca was feeling unfulfilled by funding kitchen gadget start-ups on “Shark Tank” or electronic-gaming companies back in Silicon Valley. He, like Beebe, turned his attention almost fully toward clean-energy and climate-related investments.

Sacca and Beebe represent one of the hottest corners of the venture capital business in the 2020s: climate tech. Some of the companies that investors like them are backing today will likely become the Googles of tomorrow. Only instead of changing the way we search for stuff on the Internet, climate tech companies will change the way we source and store our energy, grow our food, and move from point A to point B, whether on land, water, or air. In doing so, they’ll not only transform our economy, but help save the planet.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook. That was 30 percent more than in 2020 and more than 2.5 times what it was in 2019. Those big numbers will likely only get bigger as federal, state and international clean climate and clean-energy policies are implemented. Quite simply, government policies and funding help reassure venture capitalists and other private investors to put more of their money at risk.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook.

Climate-tech and clean-tech investing is no longer just about solar or wind or even batteries anymore. Those businesses now attract plenty of mainstream investors. They’re almost like investing in restaurants or real estate — they’re too passe for venture capitalists who are more interested in finding more disruptive technologies that can scale quickly and create big returns.

“What we look at every day are energy innovations that are just insane, some of which are doing things that Einstein declared literally would not be possible,” Sacca said at the VERGE conference. “We see stuff happening in synthetic biology, for instance, that’s just nuts.”

Amid the hellish fires in the West, back-to-back hurricanes in the East and scientists everywhere warning that things were only going to get worse, Sacca in August 2021 stepped away from Lowercase Capital, quit “Shark Tank,” and with wife Crystal turned his attention specifically toward figuring out how to fund and support companies trying to do more to address climate change. The couple launched a new investment fund called Lowercarbon Capital. In a matter of days, they raised more than $800 million that Lowercarbon Capital could deploy to try to “un— the planet,” in Sacca’s terms. The fund was so popular, Sacca wrote on Lowercarbon Capital’s blog, that it had to turn investors away. “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt,” he wrote.

Since then, Lowercarbon has invested in companies that capture carbon dioxide and turn it into consumer products, reduce carbon emissions from livestock and fertilizers on the farm, and mine materials that are key to batteries and storage in ways that don’t destroy the environment. One such company is Twelve, a Bay Area start-up that “upcycles” carbon dioxide captured from industrial emissions and turns it into everything from jet fuel to sunglasses lenses, replacing fossil fuels and plastic. Another company Sacca was particularly excited about in 2021 was Lilac Solutions, which has raised $150 million to commercialize its lithium-mining technology. Lilac claims it can produce the essential element for batteries 10,000 times faster than conventional methods, using 90 percent less land and water. Lowercarbon Capital has also made numerous major investments in companies at the intersection of agriculture and climate, including start-up Formo, which is following the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger model to make fine European cheeses that don’t require dairy or cows; Entocycle, which has figured out how to speed up the gestation period for black soldier fly larvae which happen to be some of the world’s fastest converters of food waste to protein; and Nitricity, which uses solar-powered modules placed around farms to literally make fertilizer out of thin air by converting and processing nitrates found in the atmosphere.

If garbage-eating fly larvae and fine cheeses bioengineered in a sterile laboratory don’t sound like appealing business models, think again. According to research group Climate Tech VC, food-and-water-related climate tech was the biggest sector for climate venture funding in 2021, followed by mobility, consumer goods, and clean energy. Tech investors’ take on food and agriculture is yielding new high-tech twists in one of the world’s oldest and most established economic sectors. Seattle-based clean-agriculture start-up Nori, for instance, got its start in 2017 when its cofounders entered a hackathon contest for coders to figure out new ways to use blockchain technology for social good. Far from the nearest farm, what they came up with was a way to use blockchain technology to monitor and track low-carbon agriculture practices and then monetize that by selling farm-based carbon-removal offsets.

In doing so, Nori is incentivizing farmers to use more climate-friendly agriculture practices that don’t just reduce carbon emissions but actually increase the ability of soil and crops to store carbon, while also creating a new marketplace for carbon removal and trading. In 2020, Nori raised more than $5 million in seed funding to launch its platform. “We call it climate-smart agriculture — thinking of carbon removal like a crop,” Christophe Jospe, a Nori cofounder, told E2.

This excerpt has been updated since publication.

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Walmart Begins Search for Sustainable Packaging

Claudia Baldwin

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“We don’t have time to waste.” With this imperative tagline, American retail giant Walmart launched its Circular Connector this spring.

The goal: to accelerate innovation in the field of sustainable and circular packaging, creating a bridge between companies looking for packaging that has less impact on the environment and those with new solutions to offer.

Searching for sustainable packaging

That the world’s largest retail multinational is launching an online platform to encourage the circular economy of packaging — even while accounting for some form of greenwashing — is undoubtedly great news.

After all, it’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution and in general to any aspect related to the sustainability of products. And Walmart, the retail chain of over 10,000 stores around the world, is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

Hence the ambitious commitment that the multinational has set for itself by 2025: to achieve that 100 percent of packaging on its shelves would be either recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable. And hence the rush to find solutions to reach the goals.

It’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution… And Walmart is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

The Circular Connector was therefore created as an online tool to connect packaging designers and manufacturers with companies in various sectors, from food to cosmetics, from fashion to toys. “Basically,” explains a statement on Walmart’s website, “it’s a platform to accelerate packaging innovation and implementation. We want to make it easier for suppliers and brands to find sustainable packaging solutions, thus enabling all of us to move faster toward waste reduction.”

How does the Circular Connector work?

The Circular Connector is accessed from the multinational company’s sustainability policy site, the Walmart Sustainability Hub. To participate, sustainable packaging manufacturers or designers must fill out a special questionnaire with a series of questions about the functions, materials and recyclability of the candidate packaging. Each proposal will then be reviewed according to Walmart’s packaging sustainability goals and, if compatible, will be posted on the site and made available to brands for possible supply contracts.

Reiterating, pragmatically, that they “don’t have time to waste,” the project leaders also made available the company’s Recycling Playbook, based on the two principles of recyclability established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Namely: 1. Is there, in practice, a system for large-scale recycling of this category of packaging that guarantees at least a 30 percent recycling rate for over 400 million people? 2. Do the packaging components fit into that system?

Walmart’s handbook also contains valuable guidance on materials, such as those that are difficult to recycle and therefore tend to be excluded from sorting: metallic films, multi-layer materials, PVC or PVDC, PETG in rigid plastic packaging, oxo-degradable plastics and colored PET.

“We need to work together to promote innovative solutions on a large scale,” states Walmart. “Companies with reusable, refillable, recyclable and other sustainable packaging solutions should therefore come forward. There are hundreds of brands striving to achieve their own packaging sustainability goals, just like Walmart, and the Circular Connector is one tool available to them in this journey.”

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Episode 317: Conversations About Circularity

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 1:03:05.

CONSIDERING CIRCULARITY (8:50)

Featuring a recap of interviews and stories from Circularity 22, held this week in Atlanta.

INTERVIEW: Jon Smieja, vice president of circularity and senior analyst for GreenBiz, reflects on hot topics and themes
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Planet vs. plastic: Three steps to solving the global plastics crisis (Featuring Keiran Smith, co-founder and CEO of Mr. Green Africa, on how to encourage decisions made at the local level.)
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: John Warner: How to do the materials economy right (Featuring John Warner, senior vice president and research fellow of Zymergen, on how green chemistry could enable the leap to a regenerative, circular economy … if we educated chemists.)
CHITCHAT: Textile recycling tech startup triumphs in Circularity 22’s Accelerate competition
AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO, Shelton Group (On the importance of shifting context; and what that disturbing baby wrapped in cellophane image teaches us about marketing circularity.)

FEATURE
More sustainable consumer goods (47:30)

Interview with new CEO Christy Slay of The Sustainability Consortium, about priorities, circularity and engaging nimble innovators.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Not My Problem” and “Let That Sink In”; ItsWatR: “Awakening Instrumental”

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To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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