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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
The 5 Biggest Packaging Trends Impacting Sustainability in 2024

Improved automation is a major driver behind several of the biggest trends that will impact packaging sustainability in 2024.

As 2025 sustainability target deadlines loom, retailers including Amazon are trying to make good on their promises. The e-commerce giant announced in November that its European facilities just ended use of single-use plastics in packaging. In the US, it’s working on the shift away from plastic — opening its first fulfillment center free of plastic packaging in Euclid, Ohio, in October. With changes like this, 2024 could see the greatest shift in packaging since the introduction of plastic.

One thing helping businesses make the switch is improved automation, showing that sustainability and automation are the two greatest instigators of this shift and are often intertwined. You’ll see how often they overlap as we explore the biggest packaging trends of 2024 that are impacting sustainability. Leon Nicholas, VP of Retail Insights and Solutions at WestRock, identified these trends through the team’s work with major brands.

1. The push for automation

With improved decisioning and AI capabilities in digital, it’s predicted that any repetitive task that doesn’t require much analysis will eventually be done by robots, drones or automated machinery. This means tasks such as stacking packages on shelves, picking and packing items for pickup or delivery, unloading trucks and storing inventory, etc.

“Most packaging today was designed to be viewed on a store shelf; a drone or a robot would have a hard time picking up a bag of salad or a big bag of dog food,” Nicholas said. “The packaging has to be redesigned in order for us to make full use of automation.”

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When those redesigns are done, you can be sure the new packaging will be more sustainable as retailers are already pushing brands for that. And it becomes easier for them to make their packaging more sustainable with less need for shelf appeal.

For robots and drones to know which packages to pick off shelves, those packages will need RFID or smart tags — another feature many retailers have already mandated. Besides using smart-tag technology for inventory and product selection, it can also enable automation to help us better reuse and recycle packaging post-purchase. Automated machinery could use smart tags to better identify and sort different types of packaging, speeding up the recycling process and helping to keep recyclable material out of landfills.

2. Plastic reduction and replacement

While sustainability-focused brands had been leading the charge against plastic, local and national governments around the globe are now cracking down. Europe banned single-use plastic products starting in 2021, Canada followed suit in the middle of 2023 (though it was just overturned by a federal court, and then the UK followed in October.

In the US, over 400 municipalities at the local and state levels have some sort of ban or tax associated with single-use plastics, with more on the way. And with consumer behavior and retailer demand driving the sustainability targets private businesses set for themselves years ago, brands are feeling the pressure to eliminate single-use plastic fast.

“A lot of these goals were put in place; and everybody said, ‘It’s ten years away.’ Well, 10 years is now coming due in a matter of months,” Nicholas said. “So, there’s been this ‘Yikes!’ moment with retailers who are now worried about not meeting their goals; and they’re sending that down to the category managers saying, ‘You're now responsible for 11 percent of my plastic reduction.’ And the managers are turning to the product suppliers.”

3. Post-purchase interaction

Besides their use in marketing, experiential packaging with QR codes also provides more practical and sustainable uses.

“In the past, we’ve neglected the idea of the package as a post-purchase engagement vehicle in people's homes, but that’s ending,” Nicholas said.

Practically, the ability to scan packaging is a way to make life easier for the consumer. One scan could allow someone to easily reorder a product, and those repurchases can be easily tracked.

On a sustainability level, brands can provide consumers concerned with possible allergens or an ethical supply chain a way to get nutritional and sourcing information having to do with ingredients. And if they can get that info from a scan, why not provide them with info on how to reuse, recycle, and/or properly dispose of the packaging?

4. Reduction of air/space

Potato chip makers beware: Empty space in packaging (to the point that there’s sometimes more air than product) is about to disappear. To meet sustainability targets, reducing carbon emissions is a priority — and one of the greatest ways we can reduce emissions is by fitting a larger amount of product on a single pallet. Using fewer pallets translates to fewer containers and vehicles needed to transport them, which means less carbon emissions released in transport.

The easiest way to fit more product on a pallet is to reduce the size of the package itself by eliminating the air and wasted space inside it. In some product verticals, air makes up as much as 64 percent of a shipment. “Some brands aren’t going to feel too good about this; but today’s delivery mechanisms and the need for efficiency demand it,” Nicholas said.

Not only will this reduce emissions, but the reduction in shipping costs is more cost effective for businesses. “Right-sizing” packaging is something Amazon already started doing for its secondary packaging using automated machinery, and we’ll soon see that when it comes to primary packaging as businesses eliminate wasted space to meet their targets.

5. Reverse vending/reverse supply chain

Boomers and their parents were already doing this in their day by returning glass milk and soda bottles to the same places where they purchased them. The resurgence is happening because it’s a great way for brands to rein in use of single-use plastics, increase recycling rates of other materials, and meet their sustainability targets. What’s new is how reverse supply chain works today.

Of course, this is where automation enters in again; because reclaiming containers is mostly being done by reverse-vending machines — which are on the rise. The reverse-vending market — which allows brands to monetize recycling to give people more incentive to do it — is expected to surpass $630 million by 2028.

European countries with deposit-return systems achieve the highest return/recycling rates — ranging from 85 percent to 98 percent, depending on the country. In Canada, the average return rate for deposit containers is 80 percent. These rates are almost double the rates of curbside recycling.

Nicholas recommends brands share their product goals and challenges with their packaging provider since there is a wealth of guidance those teams can share regarding supply chain, shipping and transport, and consumer touchpoints. For example, because recycled paperboard is one of their main material sources, WestRock will work with major brands to reclaim their packaging material, helping them to meet recycling targets. Nicholas says allowing packaging providers to consult on processes is the best way to truly leverage the power of a good packaging partner and meet sustainability goals.