Recent research from the EcoFocus Trends Survey and Greenpeace Canada shows that consumers want better packaging, especially alternatives to replace plastic for food and beverages.

On January 25, 2020, paper and paperboard producer Evergreen Packaging published a white paper discussing results from the 2019 EcoFocus Trends Survey showing millennials’ interest in sustainable food packaging, the Food Packaging Forum said. The survey reached 4,000 adults in the U.S between the ages of 18 and 65 years old. Some of the takeaway messages from the study were that 68 percent of millennials feel that “foods and beverages with healthier ingredient lists should use packaging materials that are healthier too,” with 65 percent agreeing that “healthy beverage brands need to do a better job of providing alternatives to plastic packaging.”

The survey results in further point to a preference for F&B packaging that supports sustainable practices, including being recyclable, made with recycled materials, and made with renewable resources. The white paper highlights that brand owners can build trust by acting responsibly towards the environment and by providing consumers with information on proper recycling and disposal.

In November 2019, Greenpeace Canada released a report that presented ‘The Smart Supermarket’ — a hypothetical store that has moved beyond single-use plastics and packaging, which coincided with visitations by Greenpeace volunteers to over a dozen supermarkets across the country, part of a Canada-wide week of action urging retailers to phase out single-use packaging and join the Reuse Revolution.

“Over 200,000 Canadians have signed Greenpeace’s petition urging major supermarkets to stop distributing single-use plastics and packaging,” said Sarah King, Greenpeace Canada’s head of plastics and oceans. “Supermarkets are the places where people encounter the most single-use plastics, and people want change. A reuse revolution is happening all around us, and we’re asking supermarkets to join it.”

The Greenpeace Canada survey of Canada’s supermarkets in November 2019 found that reuse and refill packaging models were not present in any significant way across Canada’s retail sector.

While the Metro grocery chain in Quebec allowed customers to bring their own reusable containers into stores for the purchase of fresh products and ready-to-eat meal counters, and the Sobeys grocery chain and Quebec IGA stores were the first in Canada to get rid of all plastic bags (by January 2020), providing reusable mesh bags made from recycled water bottles that can be returned for recycling, Greenpeace Canada found the acceptance of containers for refill varies across the big chains and each company’s stores. “Some locations accepted containers for prepared food; however, most stores are not equipped with systems to allow customers to weigh their containers for bulk purchases. Greenpeace found that reusable and returnable packaging is largely non-existent, while refill opportunities are limited to mainly dry goods, where bulk options are offered,” the NGO said.

As part of Global Refill Week from November 6th to13th, Greenpeace Canada volunteers and members of the public visited stores owned by Canada’s largest supermarket chains, including Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro, Walmart Canada, and Overwaitea Food Group. People attempted to get their reusable containers filled with desired grocery or take-out items, and left cards on shelves and products with messages including: “I wish this product came unpackaged,” “I wish this product came in bulk,” and “I wish this product came in reusable packaging.”

In the UK most shoppers believe plastic packaging needs to be drastically reduced

A Green Alliance think tank report in the UK released mid-January, which used anonymous interviews with major UK supermarkets and brands, painted a picture of companies under considerable and justified pressure to change. All respondents were under some pressure from the public to act on plastic, although the level varied considerably depending on the business, with the supermarkets generally reporting greater customer interest and more complaints, the report said.

The Green Alliance report follows UK research released in November 2019, commissioned by customer experience agency Ubamarket, using a sample of 2,003 British adults. It found that 82 percent of British shoppers believe that the level of plastic packaging used in food and drink products needs to be drastically reduced, while 41 percent believe that their current level of plastic usage is having an adverse effect on their health.

In the Green Alliance report, one supermarket representative said their company had received relatively few complaints, but many inquiries over recyclability, while another noted: “It’s been mostly complaints, saying that plastic is evil and has no place, regardless of any positives it might have in addressing food waste and whatnot. It’s been ferocious. We’ve seen an 800 percent uplift in customer queries in the last year alone.”

“But this outrage is not necessarily translating into changes in purchasing habits,” Green Alliance said. “Several of the brand representatives that offer products in multiple materials, and which often claimed to be ‘material agnostic,’ noted that customers’ concerns over plastic pollution are not yet evident in what they are buying.”

One observed: “A lot more consumers are saying that they are already avoiding what they understand as single-use plastics – that is a clear and consistent trend coming through our research. It is not necessarily coming through as actual behaviors from consumers yet.”

“Consumers… are hugely confused about what ‘bio-based,’ ‘compostable,’ and ‘biodegradable’ mean...”

The report found that switching to new materials could confuse the consumer. One repeated concern by the businesses spoken to was around the use of bio-based and compostable material for packaging. A Grocer survey of more than 1,000 individuals in 2019 found that consumers think that plant-based compostables are the most environmentally friendly packaging materials, ahead of paper, glass, cardboard, conventional plastic, and aluminum, in that order.

“Many of those we spoke to were wary of simply rushing away from plastic towards other single-use materials, only to have caused different environmental impacts. Despite this, some shifts are already taking place that may not prove to be sustainable, and the approaches from different companies are sometimes incompatible,” the Green Alliance said.

“An approach is needed that capitalizes on the growing public awareness of plastic pollution and starts to address material use more holistically. As industry, the government and society together decide what to do about plastic pollution; the solutions must address the systemic problems of our throwaway society, to avoid the risk of simply substituting current environmental problems with new ones.”

Packaging Insights said that the research warns that in the absence of government direction, “a disjointed and potentially counterproductive approach to solving plastic pollution is emerging.” Most concerningly, the report stressed that the trend towards swapping out plastics for alternative materials might actually lead to higher carbon emissions and lower packaging recyclability.

 “We need to work together as a waste value chain to decide what we do with compostable packaging, where we should use it, and how we should mark it so that it can be identified readily.”