Evidence of the global waste crisis - and its causes - are everywhere. No corner of our world is safe, from littered beaches on a secluded islands to overpopulated cities with garbage bins overflowing with cardboard boxes and packaging materials.
While there’s no denying that prepackaged and individually wrapped commodities are a convenience, “grab and go” or single-use items are a major contributor to the trash problem. One-click purchases and free two-day shipping have become the norm, but the added expediency comes with environmental tradeoffs.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans every year; some studies claim we are on pace to have more plastic than fish by 2050. Similar problems exist on land. Recyclable waste, including paper packaging and cardboard, can still end up in landfills. In addition to the collapse of the global market for recyclables, many facilities are simply overwhelmed by the volume of discarded shipping materials they receive and cannot keep up with their intake.
These problems are driving new consumer behavior that represents both a threat and opportunity for a variety of packaging-intensive industries. An increasing cohort of consumers have made attempts to offset the environmental impacts of the “throw-away” culture. Through their buying behaviors, consumers have shown heightened interest in sustainable solutions, including biodegradable and compostable packaging alternatives. Growing awareness of these trends is driving companies to explore new packaging options that better fit the desires of both current and future customers.
Figure 1. Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging patents filed between 2012 and 2018. Source: Wellspring Scout data
It’s this growing environmentalism and public scrutiny that’s also forcing manufacturers and retailers around the world to reconsider their inventory, plastic-heavy packaging, and shipping methods. An unexpected leader of this sustainability movement is Walmart. For over a decade, the company has worked towards 3 goals: to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain our resources and environment. The company has made its supply chain greener while also encouraging suppliers to use recycled or bio-based materials in packaging. Others are following suit; having strong environmental policies and initiatives are good for business. Corporate environmentalism- or at least interest in green, “eco-friendly” solutions- has steadily grown year over year over the past decade.
Figure 2. Search results for "Recyclable Packaging" patents filled under CPC Subclass B65D between 2010-2018. Source: Wellspring Scout data
Large and small companies have begun turning to eco-friendly solutions, like using reusable containers, biodegradable materials, and plastic-free packaging. But there is still more work to do and a long way to go. Here are a few inspiring startups, publications, and patents that are leading the way: