The Future of Packaging Affects Us All

5 min read • May 21, 2021 • Grant Olsen

A recent New Yorker cartoon hit me like a ton of bricks. The illustration features a man standing triumphantly with his chin up and his hands on his hips. The pose harkens back to classic comics of Superman and other heroes.

As radiant lines extend around the man, it’s a logical conclusion that he has just accomplished something truly exceptional. The caption reads: “Gary basks in the glow of a 15-minute window within no empty cardboard boxes in the house.”

A World of Packaging Needs

Sound familiar? Our society is continually shifting to e-commerce and the corresponding mountain of cardboard that home deliveries entail. You might think you have an unusually large number of boxes piled in your recycling bin right now, but it’s likely that your neighbors have at least the same amount. In fact, I’m still waiting for a 15-minute window when I can experience that glow like Gary.

All of this means that industries and nations around the world are dealing with serious questions related to packaging. For example, how do we make it more affordable, efficient, and sustainable?

“Packaging is ubiquitous,” says business expert David Feber. “It touches almost every person on the planet. It affects things that human beings need to survive: food, healthcare, personal care. All of that is packaged. Today, none of that has a lot of intelligence. But there are real concerns with a lot of those products. There are concerns of spoilage, there are concerns of authenticity (‘Is this what I thought I was getting?’), and there are concerns of origin (‘Where is this coming from?’).”

Many of us haven’t often seen the words “intelligence” and “packaging” in the same paragraph. But these terms will need to work together in the future if we are to get better.

Why Can’t We Just Recycle Our Way out of the Problem?

Many observers point out recycling addresses several packaging-related issues, as it reuses the materials in a way that saves money and the Earth. It’s easy to think we should just keep recycling in a way that helps businesses, consumers, and the environment. But that’s a tall order because the current system for recycling is a mess.

“Five key trends are emerging that will shape sustainable packaging and related investable themes over the next few years,” explains a packaging report from McKinsey & Company. “First, consumers are highly aware of sustainability issues, with their concerns accelerating, but they remain confused. Second, in response to public outcry, sustainability regulation for packaging is now both global and increasingly ambitious, but it has become a complex landscape for corporations to navigate (with accelerating consumer sentiment also making it harder for companies to plan reliably). Third, across regions there are critical gaps around waste collection, recycling systems, and technology, limiting significant changes in the packaging value chain over the near term. Fourth, leading fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies and retailers remain committed to transforming their portfolios, but large-scale market adoption of innovations is slow. Lastly, until further notice, plastics are here to stay, with an emerging green premium on the recycled raw material.”

You might be thinking, “Wait a second! We have a great recycling program in my city.” While I’m happy that so many American cities prioritize recycling, the actual amount of waste that is successfully recycled in our nation is dismally low. You should understand that the status quo isn’t working.

One study revealed that as much as 70% of the plastic sent out to be recycled ends up being discarded instead. The statistics are also less than stellar for paper and cardboard recycling. Unfortunately, many of the recyclable items you dutifully set out on the curb each month just end up in the dump (or, worse yet, the ocean).

The Future Is Both Promising and Demanding

So how do we change the status quo? Packaging experts say that costs and convenience actually have to take the backseat to more pressing issues such as sustainability, e-commerce compatibility, and hygiene factors in our post-COVID world.

As a consumer and business owner, your perspective is valuable in this conversation. So it’s important for you to share supply chain and packaging feedback with your clients, suppliers, and other touchpoints.

“Going forward, there needs to be much closer partnerships with brand owners, with retailers, with upstream recyclers, and even downstream—with new types of customers, like e-retailers—to think through, ‘How is this packaging going to work in the value chain? How do you develop this to solve a pain point?’” says packaging industry guru Daniel Nordigården. “Going forward, I think more and more relocation of assets closer to customers—close by or even in-house—will happen a lot.”

Because traditional packaging is engineered for the brick-and-mortar world, e-commerce will ultimately drive much of the innovation. Look for lighter-weight options, smaller pack sizes, and better ways to optimize volume density. The sustainability aspect comes into play here, as new materials will be considered to address these needs.

Likewise, the future of packaging is more hygienic. About 40% of consumers clean the items they purchase in order to feel safer about having them in the home, so this is clearly a poignant issue. Future packaging will have surfaces that are much less hospitable to viruses, helping to limit the risk.

While packaging may seem like a pedestrian topic, it has major implications on America’s small businesses, environmental health, and economic prosperity. Remember, you can lend your voice to the conversation by offering feedback to your contacts throughout the supply chain. When something is working, let them know. When you have concerns, share them as well. By providing real-world insights, each of us can help inform the packaging decisions that will shape the next 50 years of our world.

Grant Olsen

Grant Olsen is a writer specializing in small business loans, leadership skills, and growth strategies. He is a contributing writer for KSL 5 TV, where his articles have generated more than 6 million page views, and has been featured on FitSmallBusiness.com and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of the book "Rhino Trouble." He has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University.